Resolutions, Self-determination, and What Makes a Change Stick

I’ve been setting and forgetting resolutions my whole life. Like most people, I’ve had mixed results. Like the year I got incredibly fit and lost 40 pounds after I turned 50. Or the time I found a beautiful little house in a good area that I could actually afford. Or finding my husband, who exceeds my expectations every day. But there have been resounding failures, too. Or just dead ends that reek of rotted potential. Like the unused video equipment that collects dust in the corner of my office. Or the productivity goals I set and blow daily.

The more I study systems of identity the more obvious it is: What a bare-knuckled fight it is to create a solid sense of self in the digital age.  And yet, the greater the uncertainty in society, the more critical self-determination is in shaping who we are and who might become. The philosopher Amelie Rorty wrote that, “Humans are just the sort of organisms that modify their sense of agency based on their perceptions of themselves.”

So, what’s the difference between a resolution that sticks and one that doesn’t?

First, I’m no self-help expert. Everything I’ve learned about self-determination is from the trenches. Still, I’ve gotten better at improving my chances for success by paying close attention to the three things below:

1. Soften first. Setting and keeping resolutions that will actually become who YOU are requires that you soften into it. Mostly, we enter into a change with a sub-conscious level of resistance. Have you ever begun a work out program and argued with your trainer, “Oh, I’ve tried that, doesn’t work,” or told a therapist they don’t get you? That’s resistance and it will subvert your reolutions. Resistance is general. It doesn’t differentiate good from bad places to lodge its barriers. So if we are to change, we must first soften our resistance. We set ourselves up for success when we become consciously less rigid about who we are or who we hope to become. Easing our way into openness and curiosity about what this change might teach us about ourselves is a great way to begin.

2. Focus on purpose. Next comes determination about why this resolution is important. To you, not your spouse or co-worker, YOU. The participants in my 8-year study on identity development taught me this. Also, being clear about the purpose of a resolution was incredibly self-defining. On the other hand, being blind to our purpose is a form of denial that will undo most good intentions. In sum, being supple to change (step 1) and focusing on our reason for the change (step 2) lets us tune into what makes us feel alive—a pick-me-up that nudges us forward like morning coffee.

3. Learn AND act. Research is useful, but it’s no substitute for action. Having to learn everything you can about the nature of the problem you’re trying to solve is an excellent way to dupe yourself into believing you’re taking action. Worse, it can make you feel overwhelmed. I know this. I’m prone to overwhelm—a downright chronic case. Maybe it’s because I have to read so much for the research side my job. I’ve learned the hard way that overwhelm is a sign that I’m allowing my awareness to be pulled out of my body and tossed about. As a result, I end up feeling powerless. Hardly gonna to stick to any resolutions in that state!

One last thing. The toxic kryptonite to our agency is unresolved resentment. Left unacknowledged, anger hardens us. We have to soften our anger to free things up so that possibilities can circulate. Which is why step one—softening—is so important. No diet, no pill, no coach is going to fix the anger business for us.

It’s on us to become a whole person. It’s a life’s work. And it’s the one thing we can actually make happen.

Autumn is here. It’s time to embark on a goal or two after the sweet lull of summer. May this fall be a full-blown harvest of meaning and momentum.

Patricia Martin