It’s New Year’s Resolution Time.

Christmas is over for another year. Hope yours was a merry one. Time now to put those New Year’s resolutions in order. Aaron is ready. He resolves that this year he is going to find a new job. Sure, it was the same resolution he made a year ago but this time he’s serious.

Sorry, Aaron, but right out of the gate you are showing us how not to make a resolution, how not to attack a challenge: First, you have an excuse for last year’s failure; you say you weren’t serious last year, but this year you are. The excuse says you have not accepted the reality of your situation. If you did, you wouldn’t need to say you’re serious. Second, you focus on external factors like the economy, rather than on what you may have done wrong to fail in your search last year. In other words, you haven’t taken accountability for your actions. You have a lousy strategy based on chance external factors, and you haven’t worked on a plan of action that corrects previous mistakes.

So, what can we learn from Aaron? When failure occurs, effective coping requires taking action to correct errors, not focusing on excuses “out there.” The former is under your control; the latter is not. After a loss, coaches say, “We’ve got to correct our mistakes, and that’s what we’ll be concentrating on in practice. We can execute better if we work hard.” Coaches do not say, “We need to petition the league for better refs, and make sure we don’t get that crew again. They screwed us!”

New Year’s Resolutions generally don’t last. Why not? First, the very fact that you pick a specific date to begin your transformation into a better person shows that you are procrastinating, and are really not motivated. Picking a date is artificial and means you are just kicking the can down the road.

Second, many folks use resolutions to motivate themselves. “I’m joining a gym on January 2nd and that will help me lose weight.” This resolution puts the cart before the horse. Resolutions must be the result of motivation to do something, not the catalyst for generating motivation. “I want to lose weight, so I’m joining a gym.” Resolutions should be connected to a specific motivator: “Warm weather will be here soon, and I want to look decent at the pool”; “That wedding I’m in is only a few weeks away and I want to look sharp”; “The boss invited me to join in a jog last week and I nearly died of exhaustion. That’s no way to get a promotion. I have to be able to keep up.” To look decent, sharp, or get a promotion – those are specific motivators that increase the chance of success.

Third, resolutions tend to be overly general. To have any chance of success, a resolution must involve specific actions and specific goals: “I will eat a piece of fruit for lunch instead of a sandwich”; “I will do a 30-minute workout at the gym 3 days a week”; “I will walk my neighborhood (or my treadmill) for 30 minutes every day.”

Fourth, resolutions are usually unrealistic. “I will run a marathon by Spring”; “I will lose 30 lbs. by February”; “My resolution will help me reinvent myself, create a new me.” These resolutions are grandiose, unattainable, and unrealistic. They will lead to disappointment, frustration, and self-criticism.

Sixth, and very important, your resolution must connect personal values to actions. Specifically, you must engage in values-oriented thinking and make your actions consistent with that thinking. Consider these disconnects: you say, “I care about my health” (your value), but you put off investigating diets (an action); you say, “I want to get in shape” (your value), but you put off joining a gym (an action); you say, “I love being with my family” (your value), but you put off spending more time with your kids and spouse (an action). If you truly value those things, then you must admit to yourself that your actions are inconsistent with those values, and you must work to correct that problem. Connecting actions to values requires a much deeper commitment than does making a simple resolution. To cope with everyday life more effectively, identify your values, the things that are important to you. Then devise a plan that will help you coordinate your values with specific actions that are compatible with those values.

So far, we have been talking about New Year’s resolutions. But our observations extend to any coping challenge. The keys to being successful with New Year’s resolutions are no different than the keys for being successful when dealing with any stress in your life: (1) Accept your current situation and be accountable for it; (2) make a plan of action that results from your motivation to change, not a plan designed to motivate you; (3) include realistic, attainable, and specific actions and goals in your plan; (4) connect your plan to your values; (5) begin now, not at some future date.  

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