2014 is almost here and many of us are thinking about resolutions for the New Year. It can actually feel uplifting to begin a new plan such as joining a gym to get fit, writing one page a day for the next Great American novel, or more prosaically, keeping up with your inbox.
But, as most of us know, our enthusiasm wanes along with the novelty, and we get bored and discouraged. We’re suddenly confronted with the daily challenge of sustaining our goals. Unexpected events throw us off course. We need to stay late at work, we can’t leave our smart phone or a relative gets sick. Disappointingly, one day of missing the goal then leads to missing the next and next day, until we feel defeated and our goal is abandoned.
In this article, I’m going to start at the phase where resolutions begin to unravel. Most articles about New Year’s resolutions talk about setting practical goals and getting started; I’m going to jump ahead and anticipate your first failure. Just as important as setting realistic and important goals is having a plan for how to keep going despite the inevitable setbacks you will encounter.
Helen has been very excited about her New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, be kinder to her husband and implement a reward chart for with her 5-year-old son. She’s discovering the dance class at the gym is lots of fun and she has even lost a few pounds. Her son loves the stickers he gets for keeping his room tidy. She’s also been enjoying her alone time with her husband more since she’s made an effort to be less critical and more supportive.
Then, in mid-January, there’s ice on the windshield and she has to shovel out her driveway. She cannot find the stickers and leaves home without following through on the program she planned with her son. Helen arrives late for the gym to find the parking lot is full. After circling for 15 minutes, she leaves feeling very annoyed. She gets to work and feels awkward that she still has her gym clothes on and she has to explain the situation.
Starving and frustrated, Helen furtively grabs a chocolate-covered doughnut from the break room. Helen’s husband calls during work to say hi and she snaps at him for something random, as she’s meanwhile harboring resentment that he didn’t help clear the car of ice.
We all have such days. No one succeeds in accomplishing his or her goals without facing some unexpected setbacks. What, then, differentiates those who can pick themselves up and keep going from those who just give up?
What Went Wrong?
As human beings, we constantly strive to understand our circumstances and, our purpose. When something unpleasant happens to us, we often demand to know why. This explanation stage is crucial to understanding how we respond to setbacks. Most of us look for a way to make sense of setbacks. We look to blame someone (oneself, a partner, the situation) and start feeling hopeless. If we believe the setback is something beyond our control, then we’ll feel helpless, frustrated and discouraged.
Those who are resilient persevere in face of adversity. In fact, some individuals even use setbacks to become even more determined to accomplish their goals. The large body of research on resilience demonstrates that those who can get back on track quickly after setbacks enjoy better moods, which leads to more productivity and overall better health.
How can we use this information to help us overcome those rough days and stick to our New Year’s resolutions?
In the mental health field, we know that some individuals are born with more resilient temperaments, even as infants, showing the capacity to soothe themselves quickly. Even if you weren’t born as one of these fortunate individuals, know that it’s not too late for you to develop your own resiliency capabilities. Here is a mindset to help you become more resilient:
1. Develop realistic expectations.
Recognize that the unexpected (e.g., a sick child, power outage, miscommunication) is a part of life. Also, acknowledge that making changes takes time and that there is a steep learning curve at the beginning. At times, it will take longer to accomplish our goals than we had originally anticipated. However, this time doesn’t need to be a “waste of time.” Instead of saying “this shouldn’t happen,” or “I should already know how to do this,” recognize that setbacks are a part of life that can lead to progress.
2. Develop a mindset of curiosity and openness.
Ask yourself what did you miss? What considerations might be important to factor into future plans and goals? With an open, curious mind, we can explore how to make improvements in the future. Keep a list of each of your main goals, with notes about setbacks and what these are teaching you. Challenge yourself to identify one or two ways to approach the goal differently in the future. This will not only make you a better problem-solver but will also help you develop resilience.
3. Appreciate that setbacks may even bring unexpected surprises.
Helen might decide to talk to her husband about chores and discover he welcomes a heart-to heart with her; he’s been frustrated with her silent treatments and is relieved to know what’s bothering her. Or maybe Helen will talk to her HR department at work about having healthier snack options in the break room.
Perhaps she’ll realize that she just had a slip with her son and his reward stickers and can talk to him tomorrow to explain the plan and get back on track. There are lots of options. The beauty is that each day offers new opportunities to approach things just a bit differently, adding a process for efficiency, cultivating kindness and patience, or just having “one of those days.”
In fact, you might even consider making your New Year’s resolution to become more resilient, to become better able to find solutions and maintain your overall determination in all that you do. Resolve not to let small setbacks – or even large ones – throw you off your game. Once you resolve to find a healthy determination and mindset to tackle problems one by one, you’ll be mentally and spiritually recharged. Go ahead, set realistic goals, but also set one extra one: the goal of sticking with your plan when the going gets tough.