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12 coaching strategies to help your New Year's resolutions stick

Updated: Dec 30, 2022

As the end of a year approaches, it's time to ask that age-old question: what do we want from the next one? But some of us may also be asking another question: are New Year’s resolutions really just a gigantic waste of time? After all, it’s estimated that anywhere from 50 to 90% of us will fail to keep them.

So why do we do it? Where are we going wrong? And how can we approach our resolutions in a way that sets us up to actually succeed?

Where do New Year's resolutions come from? The ancient Babylonians are said to have been the first people to make New Year’s resolutions, some 4,000 years ago. During a 12-day religious festival at the beginning of each year (known as Akitu), they made promises to the gods to pay their debts. If they kept to their word, their gods would grant favour for the coming year – and if not, they would fall out of favour. These promises could be considered the forerunners of our own New Year’s resolutions.

Resolutions – why do them?

Quite simply, the birth of a brand new year offers a blank slate. New Year’s resolutions give us an opportunity to hit the proverbial ‘reset’ button, and set our intentions for the year ahead. And just as importantly, when we’re faced with such relentless uncertainty in our lives, they give us some sense of control over our destiny.

Why do they go wrong?

So what are the main reasons why our NYRs often seem to deflate faster than a sad, shrivelled Christmas party balloon? Of course, we seem to simply lose motivation and commitment. But what’s going on behind that?

When you set a resolution and begin to action it, you trigger one of the brain’s most powerful neuro-hormones – dopamine. Dopamine helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres, and regulates our emotional responses. But while dopamine levels are higher as you start out, they will eventually drop.

Without some kind of structure in place to keep you motivated, those aspirational goals or behaviours will tend to trail off. And then, when we break a resolution, it can cause many of us to either doubt ourselves, or to think “fuck it!” and give up altogether.

That’s also because self-criticism is often the biggest obstacle to success. While you might think you need a good swift kick to motivate yourself, it actually has the opposite effect.

How to succeed

So, what can we do about all this? Here are 12 key things to think about as you strengthen your resolve for the year ahead.

1 - Reflect on the good

For many of us, it’s been a pretty crap year in lots of ways. War, inflation, climate emergency, Covid. But even amongst the chaos, there’s usually at least a glimmer of gold in all that excrement. So have a think back on your past year, and pick your three favourite moments or experiences.

What made you feel proud? What made your heart go ‘ahh’? What made you belly-laugh? When did you feel your best, or most fulfilled? Take note of what contributed to your best moments. And then ask yourself why? What was it about those moments that were important? Then think how else you can experience all those same emotions and feelings in new and different ways.

If you’re stuck wondering exactly what resolutions to make, this can be a really good place to start. And because being aware of what you DON’T want is just as important as knowing what you do, you can also try this same exercise in reverse, by recalling your three least favourite moments. Consider what it was about them that you’d like less of, and how you can create experiences that deliver less (or ideally, none!) of that.

Note to self here: do this just enough to learn, but not dwell!

2 - Think about the WHY

Untangle your ‘why’s’ from your ‘what’s’.

What do I mean here? Essentially, don’t just look at the task. Focus on the reasons driving it. For instance, we might want to stop smoking, eat more healthily, or go to the gym more often. But they’re not ‘why’s’ – they’re ‘what’s’.

A ‘why’ might be: “so I can run without wheezing”. Or “so I feel more vitality and ‘aliveness’ in my body”. Or whatever is your own positive emotion underpinning that desire.

Why’s this so important? Because remembering the WHY helps sustain us through the bumpy bits. When we connect our goals to our emotions and our values, we’re much more likely to achieve results than if we just state our goals. That’s because values tap into our core motivation. Which means when the going gets tough, we’re more likely to find our way back on track.

And finally, when we’ve got really clear on our ‘why’s’, we’re also able to use them to help us climb out of any occasional moments of weakness, discomfort or failure.

Not quite sure what your values are? I can help you find them. Contact me for a coaching session to get clarity on your values, dreams, goals, beliefs and much more.

3 - Use positive framing

How often do we set new year resolutions grounded in fear, shame, regret or guilt? Think about the negative emotion that’s often hiding behind “I need to lose weight” or “I have to quit smoking” or “I should start exercising more”. Research shows that motivation coming from negative emotion is usually the least effective for adopting a new behaviour or habit.

Create a resolution from a place of love and positivity, not from a place of fear. That means framing your resolutions as something you’re moving towards, rather than something you’re moving away from. Research suggests that resolutions framed with an “approach orientation” (ie. moving towards a desired state) are significantly more likely to stick than resolutions framed in an “avoidance orientation” (ie. moving away from an undesired state).’

How to do this? For example by reframing a resolution like “I want to quit junk food” as “I want to cook more meals at home”. Or reframe “I want to quit smoking” as “I want my lungs to feel clear, healthy and strong.”

An affirmation-like resolution (ie. something with positive emotion behind it) can be really helpful here, too. So, for smoking, it could be something like “I’m in love with fresh air”, or whatever resonates for you. In essence, think abundance, and about what you want, rather than restriction, and what you don’t want.

4 - Limit your focus

Trying to change a lot of things in a short space of time can be exceedingly difficult. Instead, you’re much more likely to achieve your goal if you aren't splitting your attention across multiple different resolutions. So try and pick just ONE main resolution, to help minimise your chances of feeling overwhelmed, or falling into the trap of criticising yourself for failing.

Also, pay attention to whether your expectations might be a touch high. Of course, it’s great to push yourself and aim big – but make sure you’re not just setting yourself up for disappointment.

If we feel overwhelmed, or something is not sustainable, we’re unlikely to stick to it. Instead it’s important to explore and then commit to what’s actually realistic for each of us, from our own unique perspective.

5 - Break things down

Vague or broad New Year's resolutions are also much more likely to fail. If you really want to achieve your goal, break it down into manageable, concrete steps.

It’s also a good idea to add deadlines to each step, to help keep you motivated and accountable – especially if you expect the goal to take a long time.

Incidentally, this is one area where having coaching can be really useful. Working with a coach, you can talk it out, plan it out, and then feel more accountable as you take each step towards getting stuff done.

6 - Minimise triggers

Often, habits you want to break (such as smoking or drinking) can be eliminated once you’ve spotted the associated ‘triggers’. Once you’ve done that, you can then use those existing cues to rewire new behaviours.

So for instance, if you know that your morning coffee triggers a tobacco craving, just changing one thing about that trigger moment (like choosing to have a cup of tea instead, or doing a special breathing exercise while you drink your coffee, instead of smoking) can be enough to start rewiring the neural pathways in the brain, and laying the foundations for new, healthier routines over time.

7 - Speak it into being

People tend to have more success with goals when they go public. That might sound daunting, because it’s often very tempting to keep our resolution private, especially if we worry we might fail. But take away this safety net and you can actually improve your chances of success.

So shout it from the rooftops, and tell friends and family what you’re going for. It will not only give you a boost of care and support, but there’s also something very powerful about the act of speaking something out loud, and bringing that thought into word (and the world).

8 - Don't beat yourself up

Just like life, your resolutions journey is likely to be filled with ups and downs. Sometimes you’ll win the day. Other times, you’ll likely struggle to put best foot forward. But if you occasionally crash back into old habits, instead of beating yourself up, try to view that slip-up as a temporary setback, rather than proof you can't achieve your goal.

9 - Document your journey

Documenting your journey can make your goal feel even more concrete – especially if you can reflect on what you’ve achieved when you’re feeling despondent. That could mean anything from creating a simple checklist for steps you make along the way, to creating charts and spreadsheets, or even keeping a journal, to help track your progress.

10 - Get comfortable with discomfort

As humans, we’re hardwired to avoid uncomfortable emotions. When we do, our thoughts can spiral out of control and derail us. Instead, we need to learn to be more at ease with our discomfort.

In a world built for instant gratification, with endless methods to numb or distract us from more difficult feelings, this might sound hard. Whether it’s food, booze, tobacco, or social media, whenever we reach for a ‘crutch’, it’s often done to ease boredom, to numb sadness, to camouflage discomfort, or even just to keep us company. But if we can learn to ‘be’ with our boredom, or simply notice it without trying to smother it, we’ve created a space to make a different choice.

Mindfulness and meditation is one method to help us do this. Breathwork, yoga, or moving one’s body somehow are others. Whatever you find that works to create more acceptance of your discomfort, nurture that. Accept that sometimes, sticking to your resolution isn’t always going to be fun. Keep remembering your ‘why’, think about the outcome, and don’t let fear or discomfort get in the way.

11 - Celebrate your victories

While it's important to keep your eye on the ultimate goal, you should also celebrate the journey. Whenever you make progress on those small, incremental steps towards a goal, give yourself a reward. Or at the very least, acknowledge your mini-triumphs and offer yourself a mental pat on the back.

Why’s this so important? Because people change best by feeling good. And new behaviours grow more easily out of positive feedback than negative.

12 - Don't go it alone

If you’re struggling with willpower, direction or focus, consider seeking support from a coach. We can help you clarify your goals, eliminate any hurdles or blind spots, tap into your abilities and keep you on the path to success.

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