With the new year, you might be thinking about making some resolutions – ways you want to change or things you’ll do differently. Maybe you want to worry less, be more social, or pick up a hobby you have been avoiding because of anxiety.
While resolutions come from good intentions, they often have a low success rate. Despite our best efforts, as life gets busy and stressful, we tend to fall back into old habits. It may seem like we're creatures of habit and can't change, when the problem often lies in our approach.
Traditional resolutions are generally all-or-nothing ideas focused on a final outcome. They are often overly generic (e.g., I’m going to get healthy) or unhelpfully specific (e.g., I'm going to work out four days a week). While these may be reasonable things to to hope for, they don’t necessarily tell us much about the process of achieving them and set us up to feel defeated when they are not easily realized.
Think of it like cooking a meal. If you set out to “make something good” or “cook a risotto,” you might be able to achieve it, but you haven’t identified what ingredients or steps may be needed for success. If you lack the knowledge, tools, or planning to overcome this gap, you’re likely to struggle in reaching your goal. What happens if you make a mistake or can't find the right ingredients?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can guide us towards an alternative approach that helps us build process-oriented resolutions. Coming back to our analogy, we can think about it as identifying preferred ingredients: selecting flavors that are common to meals we enjoy and then experimenting with recipes that combine those ingredients in different ways. This way, we have multiple ways to achieve our outcome, we can adapt to challenges that arise, and even in failure, can learn something useful.
In life, these "ingredients" represent guiding principles or qualities of thinking, acting, and being that align with who we want to be. If you want to be healthier, your ingredients would be the qualities you associate with a healthy self. This might be things like being caring, living with courage, maintaining fitness, and embracing fun.
With these qualities in mind, we can then bring them into our life to make any number of meals (i.e. specific actions). With this approach, no matter the situation or challenge, these ingredients provide an opportunity to work towards being the person we want to be.
For example, when you feel worried, you could focus on how to care for yourself in that moment (e.g., “this is a hard situation and it makes sense that I feel anxious, but rather than ruminating on it, let's get out for a walk”) and use courage to face uncertainty (e.g., “I don’t know what will happen for sure, we'll just have to wait and find out”).
If you find your motivation to go to the gym waning, you could infuse some fun into fitness by joining a dance class. And when you slip into an old habit, you could respond to yourself with the care you would provide a friend, remembering that everyone fails and embracing courage to try again.
As the new year approaches, feel free to dream about how you might grow and the person you want to become. But instead of focusing on an all-or-nothing outcome, consider what qualities might define your improved self and start experimenting with ways of acting on them!