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Why February Is a Better Month for Resolutions

We must look back before looking forward and ask ourselves these questions.

Key points

  • Even if you've already failed in your New Year's Resolutions, don't be discouraged. With some careful planning, a do-over can be more successful.
  • Understanding what kept you stuck in your old habits, and planning accordingly, is crucial to changing them.
  • By taking the time to reflect on yourself, your habits, and the science behind habit change, you can make your resolutions work this year.
  • Rigorous pre-planning, predicting obstacles, committing to paper and recruiting a friend are all effective strategies for successful resolutions.

It’s a month into the new year, so how are your resolutions looking? Kudos to those who’ve kept to their new goals and there’s hope for the rest of us, too.

January represents new beginnings. Whether it’s by instinct or force of habit, we set new resolutions at the beginning of the year. More recently, there’s been a move to take a wider lens and set new intentions, referring to a bigger-picture idea of what we want to change. Either way, by now there are many resolutions that have already failed and many of those January 1st optimists are now full of self-recrimination. We should put the brakes on that, though. Feeling we’re hopeless at changing, lazy, or worse, will keep us stuck in that behavior and certainly won’t help in getting us nearer to our goals.

Why did we fail to stick with our shiny new resolutions? The step that we’re often missing, the vital step without which we’re not exactly doomed to failure but definitely making things too hard for ourselves, is clear-eyed reflection—beforehand.

Most resolutions are not blinding new ideas we’ve had. Most are about making changes we’ve been considering for a while, maybe correcting some bad habits we’ve slipped into over time. As such, we’re often aiming to change habits that are entrenched. To make these alterations successfully, we need more than a dewy-eyed hopeful focus on New Year’s Day.

Source: Lisa Fotios/Pexels
Source: Lisa Fotios/Pexels

This was brought home to me a few years ago, one November, when I came across an unmarked manilla envelope in my desk drawer. Inside, I read some old resolutions.

Each year, our family gets together to share our resolutions, and one time I was using my family as guinea pigs (nothing new there) and asked them to put their commitments down on paper. On re-reading, I was rather disappointed to realize that the resolutions I had been mulling over for this coming year would be exactly the same as last year. I was even more appalled when it dawned on me that the resolutions were not a year old, but two. Now, I do have some resolutions that remain more or less constant year in and year out: eat less sugar, exercise more, etc. but I thought I usually made effective progress on the stand-alone projects. The evidence of the failed intentions, goals, and objectives, all written in irrefutable ink, was more sobering than a "dry January".

No surprise though. Our habits are habits for a reason—they are truly engrained in us. We are often told that “we are what we do,” that our behaviors are hard-wired to us through well-worn neural pathways and, often, emotional attachments or specific meanings. As such, no early January resolution or intention will shift them without some good, hard thinking about what keeps us stuck in certain behaviors. Unfortunately, the end of the year being what it is—busy and rushed—we have little time to properly reflect on what surrounding beliefs and actions hold us in place before setting ourselves up for likely failure a few weeks into the new year.

So, if you haven’t yet made your resolutions, or if they’re already looking rather tattered and neglected, don’t berate yourself but, instead, give them another go. This time, you must do the work of reflection ahead of setting the resolutions. And not in a cursory way.

There are some key questions you should be asking yourself

  • What is my overall goal for the change I want to make?
  • What has kept me stuck in the present habit?
  • What obstacles can I foresee that will prevent me from succeeding in my resolutions?
  • Which tactics can I embrace to tackle these obstacles?
  • What circumstances will make success more likely and how do I create those?
  • Who can I recruit to help me with this plan?
Source: AlphaTradeZone/Pexels

Once you’ve worked all this out, and recruited your “resolution buddy”, write your goals and objectives down.

This all sounds quite pedestrian, I know, but, believe me, it works. Or at the very least, it has a greater chance of working than if you hadn’t done all this pre-planning.

The very action of thinking through how you will complete a task, predicting any obstacles and brainstorming your response to them, and bringing someone else in on the plans, are all evidence-based and researched sufficiently that we know they are rooted in behavioral science, as well as anecdotal success. A sports team, for instance, will invest time in pre-planning a new play they might want to run on the field. Brain scans show us that just by discussing and planning out an action, we begin to create the new neural pathways needed to complete that action. The period of thinking, talking about and planning is part of a successful strategy of change.

In my case, successfully completing my old resolution (the resolution, by the way, was to start this blog) was driven by frustration and guilt. This can be effective but is an unreliable source of impetus because our level of guilt and shame is usually sufficiently mild when we fail at our resolutions (mild, in part, because we’re so used to it) that it does not spur any real change.

To make our lives easier, we can try to use that early January instinct for change to make time for analytical reflection, rigorous planning, and writing down our intentions. Only when we’re really ready should we jump in and kick-start our resolutions. February 1st, anyone?

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