As the new year is upon us and we tear off the last page of our 2012 calendars, many of us tend to pause and look longingly at the possibilities in the year ahead. Some of us turn to New Year's resolutions to try to make the New Year synonymous with the New You. Although resolutions are established with the best of intentions, they tend to last about as long as the egg nog hangover from Christmas, or perhaps not even that long, depending on your particular affinity for the 'nog.
As a clinical psychologist, I often hear patients talk about the things that they will do to remake themselves in the new year. Many of them do what they say and use the start of a new year as a turning point in their lives. Others struggle somewhat more.
Change doesn't just happen; we have to make it happen. And the first hurdle to change is inertia. In my practice, I often come up against this roadblock even with people who seem to have limitless energy for change in their lives. Something that makes this feeling worse and keeps us from achieving our stated goals is the sinking feeling that we are somehow flawed because we can't get past our inertia. This is very common. So, how do you get past this? Easy.
Let's start with five basic techniques to get you going in 2013:
1. Start at the Start
When you make a resolution for yourself, the only thing that matters at the beginning is to start. This is deceptively simple. At times, what makes us procrastinate or ignore resolutions is the fear that we won't complete the goal. The idea of focusing all your energy on the end product (e.g., the new job, graduating from school, completing the novel) is what stalls the process and fuels procrastination. It may be true that you won't get a new job today, or this week, but you can start the process today. Getting any tangible part of your project done, from looking up a company, to deciding on a list of schools to target, to writing a paragraph, is extremely valuable if for no other reason than the optics of it. When we see the beginnings of our goals take form, we are more encouraged and feel positive about our possibilities.
2. Be Specific and Be Positive
You've probably heard people say that if you have a goal, "Put it in writing." There is a good reason that most people suggest it: It works. The act of writing something down is a productive act and focuses your mind on your prize. Many people have heard the story of Jim Carrey writing himself a check for $10 million for "acting services" in 1983 that was post-dated 10 years in order to motivate him to become a box office success. It seemed to work for him, so why not you? I certainly suggest that people to write down goals, but it is critical to be specific. When setting your goals for 2013, write down small and manageable steps that will get you to your ultimate goal on a calendar.
For example, if your goal is to "get a new job," "go back to school," or to "write a novel," you should write it down. However, I have found that it is even more useful to write down the steps associated with your larger goal on a calendar. For example, "work on resume" or "get college application." Whatever action you plan to take for your goal should be written in clear, manageable (read: small and realistic) steps using only action-oriented words on a calendar, such as "I will meet with a career counselor this week," "I will work on my application essay today," or "I will work on my novel for 10 minutes today." Make sure to put this down on specific calendar dates. The language you use should be precise, concise, and measurable, so that you can either build on it or revise it. You should plan initially only for a week or two so that your progress is measurable, but also that the first checkpoint is not so distant that it feels endless and overwhelming. Whatever period of time you use, you should build in a stopping point so you can assess your progress and plan your next moves. Remember: Any work that you do is progress toward your goal. If you miss a date, don't beat yourself up. Cross it out and put it on again. Focus on the goal, not self- blame.
3. All You Need Is Stress
In my work as a psychologist I have come into contact with many patients who hold the belief that they must suffer in order to move forward on their goals. This is not entirely true, though there is some truth to it. You don't actually need to suffer to overcome procrastinating about a goal, but you do need some stress.
People often think of stress as a bad thing -- too much stress can be detrimental to your mental and physical health -- yet, there is an upside to stress. You just need to have the right balance. Too little stress and you will not be motivated to move forward. Too much stress and you feel overwhelmed and unable to do anything. The question is how to get the right level of stress in order for you to be productive.
Determining what causes you stress so that you have the motivation to achieve your goals is critical. Will writing down your goals on a calendar give you enough stress, or will setting daily reminders in your calendar do it? Also, consider putting a completion date on your calendar as a way of adding stress. Think about this and try to create a bit of tension in order to follow through on your resolutions in the new year.
4. A Little Help From Your Friends
Try getting others involved in your efforts. Even if what you want to achieve needs to be done alone, asking others to help you get past the initial hurdles can be a great way to keep you motivated in your endeavor. Telling your friends that you are looking for a new job or reapplying to school is a great way of putting pressure on yourself, especially if you ask them to check in on you on a regular basis.
It is also a good idea for you to ask friends or loved ones about their own resolutions to see if you can help them. Having a "buddy" to work with can also be a motivating factor. If you both commit to working on your own projects in the same space for 30 minutes, you are far more likely to get it done than if you are trying to commit to that time alone.
5. Location, Location, Location
One of the difficulties of finding time to work on our New Year's resolutions is that after a day of work we are exhausted and want to tune out. If you find that being home is a signal to your brain that you are done for the day, don't try to fight it. Having a place to relax at the end of the day is essential, and if you are lucky enough to have a home that helps you to do that, then don't spoil it. The trick is then that you need to find a place to work on your goals.
Setting aside time on a calendar to simply leave the house is a great way to get the gears turning. If you can go to a separate place to do your work, either a library, a café, coffee shop or a studio, you are far more likely to be active in pursuing your objectives. Try to avoid going to a friend's house to work, because, although this is important and can be fun, it is a great place to be distracted, and the point of this is to actually get things done.
I hope these tips are helpful to you to make 2013 a year of real, sustainable and meaningful positive change in your life. Best wishes for a productive and joyful 2013.
For more by Ben Michaelis, Ph.D., click here.
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