Making resolutions that stick

Q: What’s a good strategy for setting New Year’s resolutions that will actually stick? 

Who doesn’t love the idea of starting fresh and looking forward? Resolutions are an opportunity to look ahead and let go of the past. The Latin root for resolution is resolvere, meaning to loosen, release and dissolve. Often there’s something we need to dissolve in order for something new to emerge.

Traditionally when people think about New Year’s resolutions they think in terms of setting goals to let go of bad habits and create better ones. The common problem is that these can be short lived changes. For lasting change, I suggest your first resolution be to focus on setting intentions to support your resolutions.

The Latin root of intention is intendere, the act of stretching out. This is fitting given most people have heard of this concept in a yoga class when the teacher suggests you “set an intention for your practice.” Intention is a state of mind. It’s about living from a place aligned with your values and what really matters to you. This connection to what you value guides how you respond to the vagaries of daily life. Intentions can stand on their own, free from an overarching resolution or goal, but our resolutions can suffer if we don’t have intention to ground us within ourselves and give meaning to our efforts.

Philip Moffitt, founder of the Life Balance Institute, explains: “Goals help you make your place in the world and be an effective person. But being grounded in intention is what provides integrity and unity in your life. Through the skillful cultivation of intention, you learn to make wise goals and then to work hard toward achieving them without getting caught in attachment to outcome. It is called a practice because it is an ever-renewing process. You don’t just set your intentions and then forget about them; you live them every day.”

We can achieve our resolutions and goals by being connected to our intentions rather than driven by insecurities. A common example is the New Year’s resolution to lose weight. Your stated goal may be “lose 10 pounds.” Your intention could be to “feel more connected to my body.” Notice how the intention comes from a place of kindness rather than a place that may be based in needing approval or validation from something outside of yourself. Using a personal example, I recently decided to set the goal of being better at saying “no.” My underlying intention is to be less scattered and overcommitted in order to be more present and focused on the things I choose to say yes to. To start yourself, explore an area you’d like to shift in your life and then ask yourself why it’s important? Does it represent how you want to feel in your daily life or in your relationships? Then ask whether it’s realistic and coming from a place true to yourself, rather than driven by insecurities or a need for external validation.

A key reason intentions help our resolutions last is that they always relate to the present moment and focus on process versus outcome. Rather than being defined as an all-or-nothing variable— you either lost the 10 pounds or you failed— intentions are based on a less rigid system which allows for setbacks and growth throughout the process. In this sense, your underlying intention is what can fuel you during setbacks by reminding you of yourself within the big picture. It’s understood that intentions are a life practice, requiring mindfulness and slow and steady transformation. This perspective can be the key to having your resolutions last.

With intention-fueled resolutions, changes in the new year can be an opportunity to both stretch yourself and let go. It’s a chance to reflect on what you find meaningful, embody your values and direct yourself on that path. Resolutions and goals are important because they designate our desired outcome, similar to plugging in an address to your GPS system. But the actual navigation comes from the underlying intention that fuels you along the twists and turns and speed bumps of the new year.

Dr. Rachel Allyn is a licensed psychologist in private practice. Learn more about her unique style of therapy at DrRachelAllyn.com. Send questions to Rachel@DrRachelAllyn.com.