January is a time for resolutions, and for some of us, that can also mean a time for disappointment, reality-checking, and self-flagellation. It’s easy to set goals, but much harder to keep them. It’s also simple to see how a habit change might improve our lives, but very difficult to change our engrained habits. I commonly see friends and acquaintances lose steam with their goals or lose faith in themselves when they struggle with keeping resolutions. To avoid that, here are some mindfulness-based strategies that may help you get back on track.
1. Notice how you feel.
Setting a goal is likely to inspire feelings of empowerment and hope. That feels great. But struggling or failing to meet a goal feels terrible. When you encounter setbacks or failures, it is normal to feel hopeless, powerless, and worthless. While, in the moment, this really sucks, these feelings can over time serve as motivation for wiser action if you don’t resist them or push them away. Mindfulness can help us in times like this in many ways. First and foremost, it can help us stay with and acknowledge these feelings, which in essence are sensations in the body. In times of struggle and failure, it can be easy to ignore or numb the uncomfortable, even painful, feelings that arise. If you can allow yourself to notice them, however, they may help guide you to care for yourself better and learn from your mistakes.
2. Be your own best friend.
If you can be mindful of your feelings, thoughts, and emotions as you deal with struggle or failure, you are bound to notice some rather nasty internal talk. Though this is normal, it won’t help you learn or get back on a personal growth track. Nevertheless, we humans tend to be much harder on ourselves than we are with other people. The solution to this is to develop a habit of treating ourselves like we do our best friends so that we can activate self-compassion. Just ask yourself the following question: “If my best friend set a goal and failed to achieve it, what I would tell them?” Most likely, you wouldn’t be judgmental, critical, or mean. Instead, you’d be supportive, understanding, and caring. While this may feel strange at first, it will become natural over time and it will make failure and struggle a lot less scary.
3. Be aware of “all or nothing” thinking.
Once you’ve experienced and cared for your emotions, it may be appropriate and helpful to consider next steps. In particular, you may consider whether you should abandon or revise your goals or just get back to them. In doing this, watch out for all or nothing thinking. Sometimes, but especially in January, we can set goals for ourselves that are really geared towards improvement, though we can implicitly add in an unstated standard of perfection. For instance, if you set a goal to exercise every day in January, you may be discouraged when you miss a day in the first week. Does this mean the goal is impossible and you should quit? Not in my view. The goal wasn’t really about the streak. The goal was about establishing the habit. If you exercise 30 or 28 or 26 days out of January instead of 31, it seems to me you’d be pretty darn close to that. As you heal and learn from struggles with your goals, therefore, be aware of all or nothing thinking because accomplishing some of your goals can still represent amazing progress.
4. Remember your values.
The best kind of goals are specific, actionable, and measurable. The dangerous part of this, though, is that goals can make us so laser-focused on one thing so that we forget the bigger picture. When I struggle with goals, I find it helpful to zoom out to get more perspective. I do this by considering not just the reasons I set the goal, but also my long-term goals for life. For many of us, we’d probably say that our goals for life include happiness, health, connection, and meaning. Those kinds of goals aren’t necessarily dependent on achieving particular objectives in life. Rather, they are achieved by living our deepest values in life. The beautiful thing about values is that you can live them in failure as much as you can in success. When I remember my values in this way, I remember what motivated me to set the goal in the first place and, in turn, that motivates me to be gentle with myself and start again.
Professionals and lawyers accustomed to meeting goals every day at work can easily forget that achieving personal goals and changing habits is really hard. Doing hard things becomes much more doable, however, when you use practices and develop habits that help you build resilience. Mindfulness practices can help with this because they help us remember that achieving goals is not just about discipline, but also about accepting life the way it is and caring for ourselves along the way. This January and this year, I wish you luck in achieving your goals but I wish even more that you care for yourself as you do it.