Health and Medicine People and Community

Should you set New Year’s resolutions?

If your answer is “yes,” a University of Miami expert tells you how you can achieve your goals.
New year fireworks over Miami

In the new year you finally will lose those 20 pounds. You also will declutter all your closets. And you definitely will exercise 30 minutes a day without fail.

New Year’s resolutions. Many of us make them. Many of us fail to achieve them. 

New Year’s resolutions are made with the best of intentions. All of us want to live healthier, happier, more fulfilling lives. But try as we may, we often “revert to the habit mode,” said Joel Rothaizer, an executive coach, organizational consultant, and board-certified organizational and business consulting psychologist who teaches for the University of Miami Certified Professional Coach Certificate program in the Division of Continuing and International Education.

So, why do our brains revert to old habits?

“Our brains are still optimized for life on the African savanna,” he said. “It takes a lot more energy to run the frontal lobes, so we revert to habit mode, which takes a lot less energy. But there’s a major problem with that. Our frontal lobes are the seat of functions like response flexibility, complex decision-making, self-awareness, compassion, self-control, and attunement to our deeper values. All of those are needed to break habits.”

And how do we get off automatic pilot and stay aligned with better choices?

“Healthy change is greatly facilitated when we set intentions, stay aware of why those intentions deeply matter to us, regularly check on their progress with compassion rather than self-judgment, and acknowledge ourselves for the positive changes we’re making,” Rothaizer said.

Sustainable behavior change is greatly facilitated by cultivating a reflective disposition, he added. That means carrying out regular cycles of action and then reflection. So, with an exercise regimen, for example, you first regularly remind yourself why this deeply matters to you. What is the greater goal that is served by getting more exercise? If you’re successful exercising, you reflect on what you have achieved. If barriers arise, you reflect with curiosity about what got in the way and adjust your routine accordingly.

“One way of jump-starting that process is by setting realistic but still challenging New Year’s resolutions and then regularly checking on your progress,” he advised. The more realistic your goals, the higher the probability that you will achieve success. Research tells us that setting unrealistic goals and then failing leads to a collapse in motivation, even to a point where we stop doing things that are easy to accomplish, Rothaizer explained. Also, try to concentrate on one goal at a time, he warned.

While most of us want to change in one way or another, “change is uncomfortable,” he pointed out. And no one likes to feel uncomfortable, he noted.

“So, we need to care enough about something to be willing to be uncomfortable and regularly remind ourselves of this value we’re holding,” Rothaizer said. He cited a published study where people who wished to change their habits were much more successful in attaining their goals if they focused on their values and what was important to them.

The motivation to break a habit should be based on the benefits that it will bring to one’s life and to the lives of others, not just based on fear of negative consequences.

Rothaizer also discussed how he sets intentions every morning and then reflects at the end of the day about how he did. What is his way of making sure he sets intentions? He does not look at his phone until he does.

Experts say that you should concentrate daily on the outcome of your intentions, visualize how you would be different and how the change will affect you and those around you. Be positive.   

One other factor that may help maintain a New Year’s resolution is to be kind to oneself during the process, Rothaizer affirmed.

“It is important that they regularly check in on how they’re doing with their compassionate inner observer, not their inner critic,” he said.

It is also important to have a support network. Finding friends or colleagues who have similar goals also is helpful because they can check in on each other and offer encouragement, he said.

Rothaizer noted that it also helps to identify some of the potential roadblocks that might prevent goal achievement and design a plan that takes those into account. “That way you can find a way to remove those roadblocks,” he said.

But if we fail to maintain the New Year’s resolutions, we should not despair, he cautioned. “Setting goals and not reaching them is not failure,” he assured. “It’s an opportunity to learn, to reflect, to be curious about what got in the way, and to set new goals that incorporate what we learned about ourselves.”