New Year: Making a Fresh start

New Year: Making a Fresh start

New Year is a time to reflect on what gives us purpose and meaning. We evaluate the previous year, reviewing what was challenging, what we did not do, and what we achieved.

We focus on what changes we want to make, to continue to pursue what is important for us to lead a meaningful life (Pigliucci, 2017). The calendar marks a new beginning that allows us to make a fresh start and renew our determination to act on our intentions.

Making a fresh start allows us to let go of past setbacks or problems, and renew our belief in our ability to follow through with our resolutions (Milkman, 2022). An underlying motivation is our promise to ourselves that this year we will do the things we set out to do.

As we identify what we want to focus on, we may discover that we are interested in a variety of pursuits. However, if we are to follow through with our plans, we need to focus on a small number of goals (Fishback, 2022).

Once we set the intention to pursue our goals, we feel a boost in our enthusiasm and determination. However, as soon as we face setbacks, our motivation decreases and before we know it, our determination may waver, which is why many give up on their New Year’s resolutions.

Why do we give up on our resolutions?

It is frustrating, and demotivating, when we fail to follow through with our intentions. Why does this happen? Partly because we want to see results fast, so decide to make big changes all at once, and expect to do so in a short period of time. 

For example, if we decide to exercise, we start going to the gym several times a week. However, when we have a busy timetable with work and personal commitments, it is not surprising that soon we start to reduce the frequency and eventually stop going.

In situations where behaviour is too different and requiring a lot of effort at once, it is not feasible to maintain the effort.

Another factor is that we can persevere while the activity is a novelty, but soon we revert to old habits making it is difficult to sustain our efforts. If we find that days go by and we are not dedicating time and effort to our goals, it is not that the goals are no longer of value.

It is likely that what affects our motivation is our ambivalence and resistance to change. We find reasons to excuse ourselves, to reduce the discomfort we feel because we are not doing what we said we would do (e.g., practising another language or working on our project).

What can we do to follow through with our goals?

A good way to focus our minds is to think about what we would like to accomplish by the end of the year. To help us in this process, we can identify a few categories: What things do we intend to continue doing? What new projects do we want to start? What do we want to stop doing to free up time and energy?

We can then ask ourselves, “Will dedicating time to this activity get me closer to my goals?” To increase motivation, it is best to frame our goal as a benefit ((Fishback, 2022).

Once we identify what we want, we can work our way backwards to identify the steps we need to take to accomplish our goal. When we know what we have to do, and we are committed to seeing things through, we are less likely to get distracted or choose not to do it (Grant Halvorson, 2010).

To make sure we can finish what we started, we need to set the intention and commitment to pursue it. When we describe the steps in concrete terms, and create a routine, it is easier to get started and work consistently.

When we focus on a few achievable goals we are more able to persevere with our efforts. In addition, having a routine helps us to stay focused and persevere despite difficulties.

Being aware of the context

Sometimes external factors hold us back, such as financial concerns, unexpected events, or ill health. Sometimes, we are held back because we find it challenging to protect time to work on our projects.

However, it puzzles us when we notice we are not doing what we set out to do, increasing frustration and lowering motivation. These feelings can erode our determination to persevere with our goals.

At times, we may lose track of what we want to achieve and get distracted by thoughts that interfere with our intention to accomplish something. It is normal to experience self-doubt when facing uncertainty, so managing our expectations and being more realistic as we set our goals will help create a path forward.

Managing uncertainty

We know life is full of uncertainty, but we like certainty. We want to know that our dedication and work will give us the results we want. Acknowledging that this is part of the process will enable us to manage our emotions and persevere with our efforts.

Learning to deal with the uncertainty of how things will develop is essential to following through with our goals.

The physical and mental demands required to achieve a long-term goal mean that we need to develop a system to maintain our energy levels so that our efforts are sustainable.

And it is not just getting things done, we want to do them well. We worry about not meeting our expectations, disappointing others and ourselves. In some cases, a feeling of unease is accompanied by an underlying fear of failure.

Strategies to make sustainable progress

Take time to reflect: When we pay attention to how we are doing things, we can notice what we are thinking and feeling and explore whether our actions are aligned with our values. .

For example, instead of asking ourselves, “Why didn’t I do the work?”, we can ask, “What are the factors that prevented me from doing what I planned to do?” Using “What“ questions can help us to identify the obstacles so we can plan what to do differently next time.

When we feel tension and frustration, we often focus on the things we cannot control. Taking time to reflect allows us to identify them, and then direct our attention to the things we can control and where we can make changes.

Connect with your values: Having a good understanding of what matters to us keeps us focused. We can find ways to maintain our energy level. As we focus on our values, we can build confidence in our ability and maintain hope for a good outcome.

Acknowledging that we have limited time helps us focus on what matters, and guides our decisions about where we want to spend our time and energy (Burkeman, 2021).

When we focus on what we value, and practice gratitude, it shifts our mindset, putting things in perspective so we can see the bigger picture. It benefits our mood and our health. As a result, we are more willing to make the difficult choices that are required to achieve our goals (Russo-Netzer, 2019).

Being aware that we are human beings, accepting our emotions and learning to manage them strengthens our self-efficacy. We can trust our ability to learn and develop our skills (Bandura, 1997).

Acknowledge the challenge: Pay attention to assumptions – What beliefs could prevent us from taking action? What difficulties do we anticipate? Are there alternative ways of viewing the situation? Reflecting on how we feel about dealing with uncertainty can help us to identify what are the factors causing tension.

A long-term goal can seem daunting at first, but if we break it down into smaller chunks, it becomes more manageable. As we notice the progress we are making, our motivation and determination to persevere will be reinforced.

Sometimes our imagination takes us into the future, imagining we already achieved the goal. This can help us to keep the goal in mind. However, to make it a reality, we need to identify potential obstacles and prepare for them. It will increase the likelihood of maintaining our motivation and persevering with our efforts (Oettingen, 2014).

Notice what is working: When dealing with ongoing challenges, we tend to focus on what is wrong and anticipate negative outcomes. Practising the skill of noticing when we are making progress, even the smallest things, keeps us motivated.

When we notice we have fallen behind and not kept up with our efforts, instead of criticising ourselves, which has a negative effect, we can ask “What happened?” The question directs our attention to move past the frustration and focus instead on what we can do next to make a positive change (Eurich, 2017).

Look after yourself: By taking time away from screens and pausing for a moment to let our eyes and our minds wander, we can restore energy and motivation. As we restore our energy level, we can then allocate it to energy-intensive tasks (Feldman Barrett, 2020).

When we acknowledge our humanity, we are able to be understanding of ourselves just as we would be of our closest friends. It reduces stress and restores balance (Gilbert, 2010). 

Self-compassion gives you a stable source of self-competence.” (Neff, 2011)

 

References:

Burkeman, O. (2021) Four thousand weeks. Time and how to use it. London: The Bodley Head.

Dweck, C. (2017) Mindset. Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Updated edition. New York: Ballantine Books.

Eurich, T. (2017) Insight. How to succeed in seeing yourself clearly. London: Pan Books.

Gilbert, P. (2010) The compassionate mind. London: Constable & Robinson, Ltd.

Feldman Barret, L. (2017) How emotions are made. The secret life of the brain. London: MacMillan.

Fishback, A. (2022) Forget. Quit. Undone. Surprising lessons from the science of motivation. New            York: Little, Brown Spark.

Miller, M. C., & Miller, M. C. (2019). The mental health benefits of gratitude. In Harvard Health
           Publications (Ed.), Harvard Medical School commentaries on health. Harvard Health
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Milkman, K. (2022) How to change. The science of getting to where you want to be. London: Vermillion

Newman, D, Gordon, A. & Mendes, W. (2021). Comparing Daily Physiological and Psychological
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          https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0001025

Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York, NY: William Morrow.

Oettingen, G. (2014) Rethinking positive thinking. Inside the new science of motivation.                               New York: Current.

Pigliucci, M. (2017) How to be a stoic. Ancient wisdom for modern living. London: Rider, Penguin Random House. 

Russo-Netzer, P. (2019). Prioritizing meaning as a pathway to meaning in life and well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 20(6), 1863-1891. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10902-018-0031-y

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