Each year, people all over the world ring in the New Year with celebrations, a review of the year gone by, and — often — by setting some resolutions. But New Year's resolutions have a way of falling by the wayside as the weeks and months progress. So why is it so hard to keep New Year's resolutions?
The simple fact is: It is hard to change our habits and routines. Our brains are magnificent organs that do so much more than we can even imagine, but they also have some quirks and bad habits of their own that are hard to change.
One such bad habit is clarified nicely in the Dunning-Kruger effect. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein a person believes they are more competent at something than they actually are. When you don't have the full picture of what knowledge and skills are needed to accomplish a goal, it can be easy to think that it is very achievable to accomplish it without much effort.
But there is good news. When you start to understand how to accomplish a goal, you can break it down into achievable steps and create a New Year's resolution that you can actually stick to. One of the best remedies for the Dunning-Kreuger effect (and any goal you want to accomplish) is to gain skills and knowledge by practicing it repetitively, easily remembered in the common phrase "Practice makes perfect."
With my clients, I often break down the four stages of learning that support goal achievement. They are:
1. Unconscious incompetence: I call this "not knowing what you don't know."
2. Conscious incompetence: I call this "realizing that you don't know something."
3. Conscious competence: I call this "learning how to do something" (and this is the long, hard step of goal achievement!).
4. Unconscious competence: I call this "intuition or autopilot" — when you do something "mindlessly" or without even thinking about it.
Now the word "incompetence" can feel pretty loaded, but I like to explain the process this way. First, we have all practiced this model of learning throughout our entire lives! Know how I know? I take it back to the basics. Can you walk? Can you talk? When and how did you learn to do those things? As infants and children, we learn how to do things with confidence and trust because our survival depends on it. We are fully dependent on our caregivers and our environments to show us how to stay alive and keep going.
As we get older, the information we take in from our environment and community can create conflicting ideas about what is possible and our abilities to achieve. But we continue to use this process of learning whether we realize it or not. I like to bring it into conscious awareness so that you can create goals (and New Year's resolutions) that you can actually stick to!
So how do you create that achievable New Year's resolution?
There are a lot of "hacks" for doing it, and if any of those (like SMART goals or accountability buddies) work for you, then I encourage it! They are great ways to turn a wishful desire into an achievable goal! But I like to offer some simple tips and tools that can help you move through the stages of learning.
How to Work with Your Brain in Ways That Support Success
Brains (and the people who house them) love rewards, consistency, and acceptance above all else. When your brain has these goodies, it is more likely to keep working at a goal.
Rewards: Giving yourself some small rewards at different milestones can help you to keep reaching for your goals. I'm a big fan of dark chocolate, so I like to keep a bag of it handy and give myself a piece after I accomplish a difficult task.
Consistency: Consistency speaks to the very basic survival structures of our brains. When we are in painful places (such as trying to learn something new), the brain goes into a survival state and it can be hard to get the logical brain online. We revert back to basic needs, and it is a quick path to giving up or quitting.
Providing the brain with familiar rhythms and routines can get you out of the fear state, but knowing that it is part of the learning process and being aware that it may show up often as you work toward your goal can help you challenge it.
Some people have called this part of learning “the Valley of Despair,” and it's important to remember that when you are in the valley, you have to keep going until you reach the next peak. You can make these valleys smaller with some of the following tools.
Acceptance: All living creatures move toward comfort and away from discomfort. This has been scientifically shown in humans, animals, plants, and even single-celled organisms! You can use this knowledge to inform how you create and practice your New Year's resolutions so that you can be successful with them.
What does acceptance have to do with comfort?
The brain is primed from a lifetime (or more when you consider epigenetics) of learning to move toward comfort and away from discomfort. It is so intuitive that it shows up as simply as using the word "no" or "yes." When the brain hears or believes "yes," it is more likely to change. When the brain hears or believes "no," it is less likely to change. In therapy, this is often called "resistance," but it is also a very important tool for what messages are going in that are saying "no" instead of "yes" to change.
Change is uncomfortable. It requires more energy and effort, and that is uncomfortable on an evolutionary scale. So to make change more possible, you have to remove some of the discomfort by creating accepting opportunities in the brain: ways the brain can say and hear "yes" to change.
Some ways to do this are:
It is possible to create New Year’s resolutions that you can successfully implement.
It just takes a little knowledge, patience, and support to make the changes stick.
Quick tips for making goals you can keep:
I hope this helps you create New Year’s resolutions you can stick to! Remember that the only constant in life is change. You are changing no matter what, so being aware and intentional about your change is a great way to be mentally healthy and soothe any anxiety that shows up as part of the uncertainty of life.
I’m Katie Lorz, and I’m a trauma, empowerment, and relationship therapist for women in Washington. I love to support holistic mental health and wellbeing for anyone. I’m holding a 12-week online workshop series in 2023 to support anyone who wants to create the foundations of mental health in their own life. Check out my website for more information about me and my services if you would like to know more or to sign up for the workshop series!