It’s April and I feel crummy because a voice in my head is beating me up. On January 1st, I joined a new gym 3 blocks from my house with the resolution that I would work out diligently. After the initial flush of enthusiasm, I haven’t been going to the gym regularly. Instead, I’ve fallen back into my old habits of looking for something to binge on like Netflix in order to unwind from my days. Just over three months after my New Year’s Resolution, I’m telling myself I’ve failed: I’ve wasted my membership and moreover, this is a pattern that speaks to my whole life.
If this scenario sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. The research shows that most of us don’t keep the New Year’s resolutions we make. Each year, many of us set ourselves up to fail and then criticize ourselves mercilessly when we do fail. So, what can we do to increase the likelihood that we will have a different story to tell come April?
So how do we formulate a plan?
The First Step is to create what I call the “Main Agreement.” The Main Agreement is what we are committing to do. In this case, it is our New Year’s Resolution. My Present Self is, in effect, committing my Future Self to do something. And the “me” who shows up in the future, will likely be different than my Present self. And here lies the rub. I am, in this moment, committing a future version of myself to do something that the future version of myself did not agree to do. So what I’m committed to do now, and what I’ve imagined will make my life better, may not be what my Future Self will agree makes his life better.
To increase the likelihood that these Selves will agree, I suggest that the Main Agreement be very specific and doable. So, instead of resolving “ join the gym and get in great shape,” I would instead resolve to “join the gym and do least 15 minutes of cardio at least 3 times a week.” The specificity of this second resolution helps me to be accountable to myself and others that I’ve told about my resolution.
Often, after we’ve made the Main Agreement, we celebrate and that is the end. Instead, I suggest that as soon as you make the Main agreement, ask yourself “What can I do, what agreements can I put in place with myself and others that will increase the likelihood that I will follow through with my Main Agreement?” I call these “Supporting Agreements.” An example is to agree with myself to put specific times and dates into my calendar for each of my three weekly visits to the gym. And I agree with myself that I will not cancel one of these dates without rescheduling it for the day before or the day after. I can also enlist someone else to be a partner to go to the gym with me at least some of these times. Another Supporting Agreement would be to hire a personal trainer. You get the idea.
Lastly, and paradoxically, one of the ways we can increase the likelihood of success is to plan for failure. When you make your New Year’s Resolution, at the same time plan for how you’ll treat yourself if you do not fulfill the commitment. This is not to give ourselves an out. This is not to assume we are going to “fail.” Instead, this is a strategy to short circuit the inevitable internal critical voice that comes with perceived failure, and replace it with a plan of action, one that focuses our attention on what we’ve agreed to do in advance. By having this focus on what we’ve already planned, we’re less likely to get caught up in self-critical thinking, which has the contrary effect of reducing the likelihood that I will succeed in my commitments.
Creating a new habit of behavior is often one of the hardest things to do, it’s likely that I won’t get it right the first time. Just acknowledging that to myself begins to inoculate me against that inner critical voice, and the impulse to give up at the first instance of not fulfilling my Main Agreement.
Therefore, when I make my resolution I also create a “Restoring Agreement.” This is the agreement with myself about how I’m going to “get back on the horse” if I don;t fulfill my Main Agreement. One of the most common Restoring Agreements I have is to agree to have a conversation with myself (with or without the support of another person) about what have I lost and what detriment I have experienced by not doing as I agreed. AND, very importantly, what needs did I meet by not doing as I agreed? This last part is really important because I want to appreciate that there was a reason why I didn’t do as I agreed. After appreciating both what I lost and what I gained by not fulfilling my commitment, I then can revisit my Main Agreement and decide whether I want to renew it as is or in some modified form, including additional or modified Supporting Agreements. I would turn to this Restoring Agreement the first week I did not fulfill my Main Agreement, and therefore would not be finding myself in despair come April.
By having these three steps in place, we can ensure not only that we will succeed in fulfilling our New Year’s Resolution , but also do so in a way that has more self compassion.