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Top 10 Resolution Pitfalls (and how to avoid them)

When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, the odds are forever not in your favor. Studies show that more than half of resolution-ers give up by February, and only 8% achieve their goals by the end of the year. But despite the dismal success rates, New Year’s resolutions are a popular tradition around the world. And with historians dating the practice back to 4,000 years, it’s clear that resolutions are here to stay.

The good news is that, in a couple more weeks, your gym won't be crowded any longer. Perhaps the even better news is that the 8% of people who achieve their goals are able to make significant changes in their lives. You can be one of those people this year by understanding the common resolution pitfalls and learning how to avoid them.

Top 10 Common Pitfalls (and how to avoid them)

1. Writing a lengthy list of resolutions

It’s the New Year! Everywhere you turn, people are talking about their resolutions for 2016 - to lose weight, read more, get organized, find love, etc. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and say, “Me too!” to all of it. We become tempted to write a long list of resolutions.

- Why this doesn’t work

You’re busy. You already have a lot on your plate! A long list of resolutions is not only overwhelming, but it also scatters your focus and decreases the chances that any one particular goal will actually be achieved. Don’t set yourself up to fail.

- What to do instead

Pick one resolution. Having only one main goal will allow you to narrow your focus, direct your energy, and track your progress. Not only will this increase the likelihood of success, but the positive habits and “feel good” results will trickle into other areas of your life, causing a ripple effect.

2. Following a trend

Year after year, the most popular resolution is to lose weight and get healthy. That’s a great goal to have if that is your goal. But if it isn’t, don’t let yourself be influenced by what everyone else is doing.

- Why this doesn’t work

Change is already difficult. If you create a resolution that is not personally significant to you and your life, you will struggle to make the commitment that is required of you. Not having your own buy-in will make this change process a lot more difficult than it has to be.

- Instead

Take time to make a resolution that matters to you and is aligned with your values. Pick something that excites you, scares you, and makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning. It doesn’t have to be important to anyone else but you.

3. Making a resolution that is too vague

Think about some of the popular resolutions we’ve discussed so far – to lose weight, read more, or get organized. Many struggle to achieve these goals simply because they are not clearly defined. A resolution that is too general is a sure way to guarantee failure.

- Why this doesn’t work

When a goal is too vague, it is difficult to focus our efforts, monitor progress, and ultimately determine whether or not we were successful. If you don’t clearly define what success looks like, how will you know when you get there?

- Instead

Start with the general idea of what you want to achieve and then ask yourself, “What does success look like?” This question will help you break down your goal into smaller, manageable pieces, as well as make your action items more concrete. A good rule of thumb is to create SMART goals (or, goals that are Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant and Time-bound).

4. Having unrealistic expectations

I’m sure you’ve heard the adage, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Not only is this scientifically unsound, it also happens to be pretty bad advice when it comes to making resolutions. It’s important to challenge yourself, but if you create unrealistic expectations, you will likely be disappointed.

- Why this doesn’t work

An insurmountable goal is more overwhelming than it is inspiring. Having unrealistic expectations will cause you to be discouraged. Besides, what’s the point of a goal if you can’t achieve it?

- Instead

Set yourself up for success. Pick a resolution that is challenging and practical. When deciding if a resolution is realistic for you, consider your individual circumstances, such as your current abilities, personal attributes, and the amount of time you have to devote to the task. Be honest with yourself.

5. Expecting perfection

Expecting perfection is unrealistic (see point 4 above). When it comes to making important changes, most of us will face at least some setbacks - and that's okay! Striving for excellence leads to motivation; striving for perfection leads to disappointment.

- Why this doesn’t work

Perfection is impossible. Expecting not to make any mistakes will only make you feel discouraged when you do, and will derail your efforts in making the lifestyle change.

- Instead

Understand that it takes time to create new habits, and accept that slip-ups will occur. Be compassionate with yourself when you make a mistake. If you find that you are being hard on yourself, think what advice you might give to a loved one in that situation (e.g., “It’s okay, everyone makes mistakes.”), and then say the same thing to yourself.

6. No game plan

As the saying goes, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” You may have SMART goals, but if you do not have a clear, detailed plan as to how you will execute them, you will struggle to make the necessary changes in your life.

- Why this doesn’t work

We all have a finite amount of willpower, and making changes requires a lot of it! If there is no plan in place, you will constantly have to make choices that deplete your willpower and make it more difficult to succeed.

- Instead

Create daily habits that get you closer to your goal. Research suggests that it takes approximately 21 consecutive days to create a new habit, and around 6 months to 1 year to fully integrate it into your life. Additionally, eliminate barriers to success by making choices ahead of time that will prepare you for low willpower moments. For instance, if your goal is to exercise in the morning, pick out your workout clothes the night before and put them by your bed before you go to sleep.

7. Getting too comfortable

New things are exciting! When we start with a new goal, we put in 110%. Then, as the novelty wears off and we see some progress, we lose our initial excitement, get comfortable and let our guard down.

- Why this doesn’t work

When you get comfortable with initial success, you decrease the amount of effort that you put into your goal. As a result, performance starts to slip, and before you know it, you are right back where you started (but perhaps now even more discouraged).

- Instead

Be vigilant. Continue to put forth a consistent amount of effort throughout the timeline of your goal. Leaving reminder notes around the house is a great way to keep yourself motivated and reinforce the reasons for making the change.

8. Keeping it a secret

Sometimes, when we create a new goal, we choose to keep it a secret. Perhaps the goal is important to us and we don’t want others to jinx it; or maybe we’ve attempted and failed in the past, and don’t want the added pressure.

- Why this doesn’t work

When you keep your goal a secret for fear of failure, you’ve already allowed failure to be an option for you.

- Instead

Share your goal publicly. Tell your friends and loved ones, post it on your social media, scream it from the top of a mountain! Or, at least tell 3 of your closest friends and ask them to check-in with you periodically. When you share your goal with others, it will help you stay committed and accountable. Moreover, the encouragement of others can help you get through some of the more challenging times. Another great way to create accountability is to start a mastermind group with people who are also working towards an important goal. Surrounding yourself with like-minded, ambitious, supportive people is a recipe for success.

9. Going at it alone

When we make a New Year’s resolution, we may put unnecessary pressure on ourselves to do everything all by ourselves and be good at it – even if we’re trying something for the very first time. Perhaps it is because we want to have control over every aspect of the goal, or maybe we have the “no pain, no gain” mentality. But no matter the reason, venturing into uncharted territory without a guide may not be the most effective way to reach your goal.

- Why this doesn’t work

We’re all great at something, but we’re not all great at everything. If you have a goal that is outside of your comfort zone or area of expertise, don’t be afraid to enlist help.

- Instead

Work smarter, not harder. Determine what is the best use of your time and delegate the remaining tasks to other people. Enlist a team of professionals to help you achieve your goal. They can teach you proven techniques and save you from having to reinvent the wheel. For example, if your goal is to get healthy, consult with a nutritionist or trainer so you can hit the ground running - literally.

10. Ignoring your emotional wellbeing

You’ve created a New Year’s resolution, outlined a plan of attack and are getting to work. You tell yourself some version of, “Once I achieve this goal, I will be happy.”

- Why this doesn’t work

Although it’s human nature to think, “I will be happy when I am successful,” research actually shows that it is the happy people who are successful, not the successful people who are happy. Happiness drives success, not the other way around.

- Instead

Work on your happiness directly. A mental health professional can help you gain insight into your emotions, automatic thoughts, and behaviors. This understanding is key in helping you make long-lasting changes. A happier you is a more productive you.

11. Being inflexible

If you’re thinking, “She said she was going to write about 10 pitfalls, but yet, here we are at number 11. I can’t even…” then this one is especially for you. And you’re not alone. Many people get tunnel vision when working toward an important goal. Before they know it, the outcome becomes more important than the journey.

- Why this doesn’t work

When you’re too focused on the outcome, you close yourself off to all other opportunities that may be coming your way. The “once I start something, I have to finish it” attitude is honorable, but also a big waste of your time if that goal is no longer important to you.

- Instead

Be flexible. Adjust your goal as the year progresses so that it continues to be relevant to you and your life purpose. You have a limited amount of time and energy. Put it toward something that is important to you. It’s your goal and your life. Edit as often as you’d like.


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