Why Resolutions Fail—and What to Do About It

Why Resolutions Fail—and What to Do About It January 2, 2019

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It’s that time of year, when we again make promises to become a better version of ourselves. Your resolution may involve improving your diet, your health, your relationships or your spiritual well-being. And if you’re like most people, at some point you’ll backslide, reverting back to your old form.

The good news is you can take action before trouble starts. In the book Mastery, The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, George Leonard writes that the experience of backsliding is universal and is inherent in our human nature. We fight change, even when that change is in our best interests. In Leonard’s words:

Every one of us resists significant change. Our body, brain and behavior have a built-in tendency to stay the same within rather narrow limits, and to snap back when changed.

Leonard uses the example of a sedentary person who decides they want to exercise. The body can subconsciously view the physical changes in respiration, heart rate and metabolism as a threat. This sets off internal alarm bells, as your brain sees the increased activity as a danger to your well-being, urging you to stop what you’re doing immediately.

It’s not too different if your resolution involves restoring or improving your relationship with a loved one. While you may start with the best of intentions, you may subconsciously fear leaving yourself vulnerable. At the first sign of trouble, old defense mechanisms can kick in. While it may be the brain’s way of trying to protect us, it often leaves us unable to make progress in achieving our relationship goals.

Fortunately, Leonard has some ideas on how we can stay on the right path and keep the brain at bay. He offers four guidelines that can help us keep our new year’s resolutions before they get off track.

  1. Be aware of how the brain works. Realize that when the alarm bells go off in your head, “it doesn’t mean you are sick or crazy, or lazy.” These are natural reactions and indications that real change is taking place. Leonard advises us to not panic and give up at the first sign of trouble (unless we are putting ourselves in real harm or danger). The brain needs time to adjust to change.
  2. Be willing to negotiate with your resistance to change. Leonard tells us that negotiation is the key to successful long-term change. When the alarm bells go off, stay determined and keep pushing, but allow yourself to take one step backward for every two steps forward. (Take a day off from the gym. Forgive yourself for a bout of anger.) Setbacks may happen but that’s okay, as long as you keep moving in a positive direction.
  3. Develop a support system. Talk to other people who have the same resolution or have gone through the same life changes you are pursuing. These are people who will “brace you up when you start to backslide and encourage you when you don’t.” If your personal quest puts you on a solo journey, “let the people close to you know what you’re doing and ask for their support.”
  4. Follow a regular practice. When you want to achieve real change, you’ve got to pursue your goal on a regular basis. A regular practice becomes a habit, so reflect each evening on your goals for the next day. You’ll eventually find that what was once a resolution has become second nature, something you do without thinking or struggle. It becomes an integral part of the new you.

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