New Year Resolutions? Try Stepping Off Your Hamster Wheel Instead
It’s the New Year and that means you’ve probably got a list of New Year resolutions that you’re determined to keep, especially after 2+ years of social-distancing, putting on Covid weight, and ready for something NEW. Resolutions are tricky. They come with such promise and most of us are brimming with conviction and motivation to stick to them after spending the holiday season brimming with excess food and alcohol. It seems the perfect time to buck up, bear down, do right by ourselves, break those bad habits and finally feel good about making some positive improvements to ourselves and our lifestyle. But, according to Brain Statistics latest research, of 45% of Americans who make New Year Resolutions, only 8% of people are actually successful at achieving their goals.
So why are New Year resolutions so damn hard to stick to?
Like any changes in life we want to make, New Year resolutions are far more complex and difficult to achieve than we anticipate, despite the opportune time and enthusiastic determination many of us start out with. A simple and often discussed explanation is that we are creatures of habit and after some time, we lose steam. This is undoubtedly true and makes perseverance an important value to cultivate when we really desire to make changes. We all know how much time and effort goes into learning to play an instrument or taking up a new language. It only makes sense that there is also a ton of practice that also must go into making behavioral changes, and many of us just don’t have the stamina. We think since we want to change, the change will be easy. But this is never the case.
Which brings me to an important question to ask ourselves when we set our New Year resolutions: Do I really want to change?
On the surface, of course most of us want to change for the better. We want to be healthier, happier, and more productive. We want greater satisfaction in our work, more time to play, deeper connections and more rewarding relationships. We want to be less angry, less anxious, less judgmental, less addicted. You name it. And, on the surface, making New Year resolutions that aim to improve ourselves and our lives seems like a good step toward self-care and fulfillment. And it is. Brain Statistics found that despite a mere 8% success rate, people who explicitly make New Year resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don't explicitly make resolutions. Intention and aspiration are vital.
The problem, however, is twofold. For many of us, the intentions behind our New Year resolutions are rooted in a fundamental discontent with who we are. This sounds like a no-brainer, but when our resolutions become self-improvement projects, we are inherently going into battle with ourselves. We are implicitly – if not explicitly – saying, “I’m not okay the way I am, and until I am improved, I cannot have the life I want.” The effort to improve upon or do away with unwanted aspects of self not only creates ongoing inner warfare, teaches American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, it also has the paradoxical effect of maintaining the unwanted behaviors or traits. We see this in the way we get stuck, day after day, year after year, resolving to make improvements that we think will make ourselves or our lives better, but having a hell of a time actually feeling better over time. Or, if we’re among the 92% of those who don’t stick to our resolutions, feeling even worse for failing to succeed in making the changes at all.
So then the question becomes: Do I really want to change? Because if I really want to, I have to ask myself if what I’m doing is working. If all my “efforting” to improve myself isn’t helping me feel better, isn’t making me happier, or is even making me feel worse for failing, maybe on some level I don’t really want to change. Maybe the effort to improve ourselves just keeps us going around and around, like a hamster in a wheel, when what real change requires is stepping off the wheel altogether.
What I propose is if you really want to change, then don’t start at trying to do away with the undesirable aspects of yourself or embarking on another self-improvement project, but with changing the very way you relate to yourself. As a therapist who practices mindfulness-based approaches, this is one of the most beneficial and effective ways I help clients achieve long-lasting happiness with themselves and their lives. For most of us, stepping off the wheel requires a profound shift away from being in constant conflict with who we are and the lives we’re living - which only serves to maintain our discontent - and towards accepting and making peace with who we are, the good the bad and the vulnerable. It means breaking the habit of beating ourselves up and maintaining the negative cycle of “I’m not good enough.” It means approaching our struggles and limitations with compassion rather than with derision.
This doesn’t for a minute mean we choose not to live healthy, abundant and successful lives or give ourselves permission to turn into couch potatoes. Rather, it means having the guts to stop ourselves in our tracks, step off the hamster wheel, and look reality in the eye.
Ask yourself: “Is what I’m doing working, or am I just keeping myself stuck?”
This approach of accepting ourselves as a pathway to change rather than rejecting ourselves in order to change, may sound radical or even ridiculous in our high achieving, highly competitive world, but it works. The reason it works is it addresses our fundamental resistance to change as well as our unconscious, underlying desire for things to really stay the same. Most important, it increases our self-acceptance and self-compassion, which research is increasingly showing is far more effective in improving happiness and wellbeing than self-improvement rooted in negative appraisal of ourselves.
Real change takes courage. Beating yourself up and trying ineffectively to improve not only doesn’t generate dividends, it keeps you constantly in the red and in the dark. If you’re having a hard time sticking to your New Year resolutions, have already failed to follow through, or are busy struggling with, hating or judging those aspects of yourself or your life that you’re trying to change, do yourself a favor and step off your hamster wheel. Give yourself a hug and reevaluate. This doesn’t mean you’re weak, it means you’re smart. You’re finally willing to stop doing the same thing, expecting different results. And if you’re really interested in giving this approach a go, find a mindfulness-based therapist who will work with you to make true, lasting change from the inside out.