Bouncing Back from New Year’s Resolution Setbacks

By Dovid Spinka, LMSW

“I really should go to the gym this week… After all, I signed up for an annual membership in January and I’m paying a significant amount of money for it.”

“I committed to reading every day for a half-hour, but I can count on one hand the number of times I have even picked up a book in the last three weeks.”

“I haven’t lost any weight as I planned back in December. In fact, I’m 10 lbs. heavier!”

If any of this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Research shows that most New Year’s resolutions are a distant memory by the end of January. Many gyms notoriously rely on this trend and do end-of-the-year sign ups for many more members than their facilities can accommodate, knowing full well the treadmill lines will soon disappear. For individuals though, this phenomenon can lead to despondence and giving up on resolutions that were made with high hopes just a few weeks earlier.

However, we are neither compelled to resign ourselves to the inevitability of failure, nor are we incapable of getting back on track! Typically, with just a few subtle but significant shifts in mindset and behavior, people can bounce back from New Year’s resolution setbacks. Here are a few concrete strategies to try now…

  1. Refine your goals: At the start of a goal, most people overestimate what they can accomplish. A setback is nothing more than a healthy reality check! Cut your initial goal into half, and then cut it in half again, and then cut it in half one more time, and aim to do only that small, specific portion (and not more!) as a starting point. For example, rather than working out four times/week, aim for just once in the coming week.
  2. Reach out: Tell family and friends about your goal as well as your struggles, and lean on them for encouragement and accountability. Surrounding ourselves with people who can provide support and constructive feedback can enhance motivation and effectiveness.
  3. Reward yourself: Don’t wait until you have achieved significant milestones to give yourself a pat on the back. Treat yourself to small and personalized rewards along the way.
  4. Refrain from self-judgment: Instead of being critical and focusing on how things should be, simply observe and describe the facts of how things are. When self-judgment comes into your mind, simply notice your thoughts for what they are – thoughts – and don’t judge the judging.
  5. Re-balance your thoughts: Adopt a dialectical mindset and move away from extreme all or nothing thinking about yourself, e.g., “I am doing great” or “I am a total failure.” Try to synthesize and balance acceptance of the present with a commitment to change, e.g., “I am doing something positive, and I can do better.”
  6. Re-focus on values: Shift away from being results-oriented and remind yourself why your goals are important. What values do they reflect? For example, going for a daily walk represents self-care, self-respect, discipline, and fitness, which are higher-order aspects of identity. A values-based approach can help us to focus on the process of growth, and celebrate each small step as a building block towards something greater.

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