NEW YEAR’S REVOLUTIONS (no, that’s not a typo)

January 8, 2010
Category: Wellness

First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.
- Epictetus

FALSE STARTS: ‘Tis the season to ponder New Year’s resolutions, isn’t it? You know, those lifestyle, behavioral or attitude shifts inspired by the conclusion of one year and the promise of a new beginning when the clock strikes midnight on December 31st.

It’s estimated that somewhere between 80% and 90% of New Year’s resolutions either never get off the ground or bite the dust after January 1st. That’s a pretty daunting statistic; daunting enough to nix New Year’s resolutions altogether. Except… Except if you’re someone who really believes—or wants to believe—in the magic of fresh starts and the excitement, not to mention satisfaction, of trying new things, thinking in new ways, and shedding old, unproductive habits to make room for new, energizing ones.

Why should you resolve to do anything if your chances of success are so slim? I have no idea, which leads me to suggest a different question altogether: How can you create a New Year’s resolution that sticks?

One obvious resolution-spoiler is embedded in the very definition of the word, resolution: “a declaration, a determination, a motion, a decree.” Is it just me, or is there something yawn-worthy about these words? Not to mention that they’re momentum-killers, in that they evoke an aura of conclusiveness: as if deciding on, or announcing, an outcome is the same as actually achieving it. If you were a screenwriter, it would be like giving your agent, or even your best friend, the final scene of your movie without any sense of how, or why, your characters are going to get there.

Don’t get me wrong. Plenty of fabulous movies begin with a writer’s vision of what’s going to happen at the end. But there’s a huge difference between starting a project with a notion of how it concludes, and assuming that the ending—in and of itself—is all that matters; without awareness of why characters are heading toward that final scene; without regard for the sequence of actions, events and character transformations that have to occur to get them there.

Yet, that’s precisely what most of us do with New Year’s resolutions. We focus on our vision of the way we want things to be—the end result—and forget to explore, really explore, why we want to get there, what we’re willing, and not willing, to do to remain invested in the journey, and what will inspire us to stay there once we arrive.

THE BEST LAID PLANS: For a New Year’s resolution to succeed, think of yourself as a screenplay or any other project indebted to an outline: Your job is to dig deep into who you are, what you want, and write a detailed outline of the steps that have to happen for you to get to the end result. All of which suggests we should call them New Year’s revolutions, to remind us of the commitment and momentum needed to make lasting change happen.

I have a confession: I’m not a big fan of outlines. Well, that’s not exactly true, because I—as in, my true, higher, and best self—really respect and deeply appreciate outlines. My Inner Critic, the voice in my head that convinces me to not bother with outlines, and argues convincingly why almost everything else in my life is more important than writing an outline, say, for this article, that voice hates outlines with a passion.

“Outlines kill your creativity,” is what it whispers in my ear with regularity.

The only problem is that since I know from experience that the absence of an outline kills my projects—I tried to write my earliest screenplay without an outline, barreled through the first act, and then had nowhere, and I mean nowhere, to go with it—the net result is that if I listen to my Inner Critic, I don’t do much of anything.

While it seems like I’m off on a tangent, that’s not really the case. Because the truth is, your Inner Critic—your Saboteur, as Co-Active Coaching dubs this internal phenomenon—is yet another form of resolution-spoiler.

The Saboteur is an often vocal and rather unkind aspect of oneself committed to the status quo. In short, Saboteurs hate change. You know that voice of absolutes you sometimes hear railing at you inside your brain, the same one that announces you’ll always or never be a,b,c, or says you should or shouldn’t do x,y,z? That’s your Saboteur.

Professional Coach, David Darst, describes the Saboteur this way: Imagine every individual is a corporation. Now think about the stereotype of early employees: loyal to the end, devoted to the company’s founding mission, vision and strategic plan. The only problem is those folks often have a tough time adjusting to new plans, and revised vision or mission statements. They hang around the cooler doing their best to undermine the CEO’s efforts to make sure the company stays current in the marketplace, improves teamwork, ramps up productivity, and grows the bottom line. Instead of supporting change, Saboteurs hold the company back from evolving.

NEWSFLASH: OPRAH & BILL GATES HAVE SABOTEURS! What does any of this have to do with New Year’s resolutions? If you have an internal Saboteur whose job is to keep you from changing the way you do things, the way things are in your life—and trust me, all of us have Saboteurs, Bill Gates and Oprah included—then that same part of you is going to do its best to sabotage your New Year’s resolutions, given that resolutions, at least in intent, are forms of change-in-action.

“Wait a minute,” I hear you muttering. “There’s no way this applies to people like Oprah and Bill Gates. They’re masters of taking risks. They’re change gurus!”

You’re absolutely right. But if you were to ask them about their process for making shifts in their personal or professional lives, my guess is they’d say:

“I politely ask that Saboteur to stay quiet long enough for me to explore whether or not this proposed change honors my most important individual values. If I conclude the change is in sync with who I imagine myself to be at my best, and decide I’m in a place in my life to really develop that aspect of myself, then I create a detailed action plan to maximize my chances of success.”

Well, maybe they wouldn’t say exactly that, but I’d wager they’d say something along those lines. Which introduces yet another common obstacle to succeeding at our resolutions: We often forget to look closely, really closely, at why they’re important and evaluate if they’re compelling enough to maintain our loyalty to them.

THE VALUE OF VALUES: What I’m suggesting is that unless you have a sense of how your resolutions tie into, and indeed support, your most important values—by which I mean those qualities and ways of being in the world that reflect your best self—it’s unlikely you’ll have the passion and commitment, not to mention sheer energy, to make good on them.

How do you ensure your resolutions are driven by your core values? One way to begin is to be rigorous in discovering the intentions that drive your resolutions in the first place. Here’s what I mean: Let’s say your resolution is that you want to lose 20 pounds by April 1st. Okay, you’ve got some good resolution ingredients there: you’ve articulated a specific goal and a deadline; in other words, you’ve avoided the trap of vagueness that causes some resolutions to die quick deaths.

Now it’s time to dig into your values: What’s important, really important to you, about losing 20 pounds? Here are some of my made-up answers: because I’m single and want to get out and meet more hot guys in the new year and the extra weight undermines my self-confidence; because those 20 pounds are a threat to my health; because I love my old wardrobe and miss wearing designer clothes; and so on.

Perhaps, if this were your goal, you’d articulate all these reasons, and then some. Great. So what values are those reasons evoking? Here are some possibilities: connecting with others, romance, self-confidence, living to a ripe old age, being healthy, physical strength, an aesthetic appreciation of design... You get the idea.

What do you do with the values once you’ve come up with them? Figure out how important they are to you—or pick the most important one—and ask a bunch of other questions, like: What am I willing to do, who am I willing to be, to honor this value? If putting the effort into losing 20 pounds doesn’t come up as an answer, you might want to rethink the resolution.

It’s also important to ask yourself: What am I not willing to do, how am I not willing to shift myself, in service of that value? Or you could ask something else entirely: In what other ways could I honor and support this value? Go ahead, brainstorm some answers. Then look at your responses to see if any of them are as, or more, compelling than losing 20 pounds. You might find there’s another option—one you’d feel more inspired to stick with—to get where you ultimately want to go.

Bottom line: What matters most isn’t the specific resolution you come up with, it’s starting, or keeping, yourself on the road to fulfillment. Given that the street signs on that road are your values—in my daily life, for example, I often find myself traveling on Connecting-with-People Blvd., before turning onto Authenticity Ave.—for resolutions to pan out they need to be deeply rooted in values, and you need to believe those values are important enough to do what it takes to get there, wherever there is for you.

GOALS THAT STICK: Are you now thoroughly exhausted by the mere thought of a New Year’s resolution? I don’t blame you. It’s painstaking work to figure out the changes we want to make in our lives, the shifts we want to nurture in ourselves, and then pursue them in a way that’s meaningful and inspiring enough to follow through.

You have every right to ask yourself: If resolutions are so demanding, why bother? Here’s my earnest response: Because you are worth the effort. Whether you do it in January 2010, or at any other time (or times) between now and the day you die, honor yourself enough to create goals that grow who you are, and increase your fulfillment in this one, very precious life that’s been given to you.

Not sure what to do after you ask yourself the questions posed earlier? I sometimes use a Co-Active Coaching tool with clients called a S.M.A.R.T. Goal (S is for specific, M for measurable, A for accountable, R for resonant, and T for thrilling). I’ve created a S.M.A.R.T. Goal worksheet as a template for you to craft a New Year’s revolution, or any other goal in the future. (To grab the PDF of the worksheet, click here.)

What do I ask in return? Drop me a note and let me know how it goes. I’m a sucker for revolutions.

RJ specializes in coaching creatives, life seekers and parents. She’s a writer, recovering academic and former senior exec and business consultant. Curious about coaching? To find out more about booking a complimentary session, email her at:

Tags: Advice, Self-Improvement
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Loved this article... what we are talking about here is executing change... very difficult for individuals as well as for organizations. The best single source I have ever read to understand the saboreurs is Tim Gallway's The Inner Game of Tennis, where he talks about Self 1 and Self 2.... We are all capable of stilling that chattering monkey (Buddist reference) in our brain and allowing our capabilities to take over and succeed.

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