11 Dec

If you want to succeed in your resolutions, then start thinking about failure

When do you start thinking about your New Year Resolutions? Sometime between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve, when, perhaps, the excesses of the festive season have started to take their toll and you’re looking forward to starting off the New Year with a renewed spring in your step? Out with the old, in with the new; wave goodbye to old habits; become that person you’ve always wanted to become.

How long is it before you find you are starting to fall behind with your plans? How quickly does that mind’s eye picture of the ‘new you’, that was so vivid and vibrant, start to fade? By when have you typically ceased to be ‘on plan’ at all, but have reverted to the old habits that you never really waved goodbye to, instead having formed one or two new unhelpful ones along the way?

One of the strongest habits you might have is the annual habit of making and breaking New Year Resolutions. This year, have a go at doing it differently. Think about what you’d like to achieve in general – your aspirations that break down into the oh-so-familiar ‘SMART’ goals – and then turn your thoughts to the ways that you will most probably fail. This ought not be too arduous a task, if you already have a track record of making laudable, respectable and exciting resolutions, which, by the start of February, have already fallen by the wayside.

Why think about failure when resolutions are supposed to be all about motivational outcomes and images of the perfect ‘you’, and using that bright shining future to create the get-up-and-go needed to take action? In order to stand a better chance of making progress with your plans, it’s important to prepare more thoroughly for the setbacks and upsets that you are likely to experience along the way. Our plans and visualisations of success will be heavily laden with emotionally-positive imagery – of the desired outcome being achieved through a plan of action that runs, well, according to plan. When a setback or failure comes our way, not only is the outcome unexpected, but so too is our own emotional reaction to it. In that moment of emotional disorientation, our brains are less capable of thinking up a logical way around the problem. We can fall victim to impulsive thoughts and actions and indulge in self-defeating behaviours, allowing unwanted emotions to fuel unrealistic ideas of self-worth, both positive as well as negative.

Thinking ahead is not only about having enough time available to consider the impact and likelihood of potential setbacks and obstacles in your way (although time is a key factor in carrying out resolutions and it pays to be prepared); it is also about having access to those parts of your brain that are capable of applying logic and perspective of time and space to these likely scenarios. When faced with a challenge in the here-and-now, logical thinking can be impaired by emotional thinking. The parts of the brain which are largely involved with executive functioning and planning (the cortical areas of the brain, including the frontal lobe and anterior cingulate cortex) can be disrupted by the limbic areas of the brain (amygdala, orbito-frontal cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex), which collectively perform survival thinking and influence impulsive behaviour.

Consider a typical example of a New Year resolution of getting physically fit, which includes as part of the plan going to the gym after work every evening. One evening you return home tired and stressed after a challenging day. This could give rise to at least two emotional reactions. One reaction could be rewarding and self-focused, in that you decide that you are too tired to exercise and that it would be better to sit down with a cup of tea and watch TV. You justify having a night off with the promise to yourself that you’ll definitely go the following evening, and that you’ll make up for the missed session by working out for twice as long. Emotionally, you are generally positive and happy.

A different emotion, such as anger, could be focused on the causes of the stressful day, with the belief that your fatigue and stress and consequent inability to go to the gym are the result of someone else’s fault and that you are the victim. The outcome is the same: you decide not to go to the gym because there’s no point now.

In both scenarios, emotional thinking in the moment reduces your ability (in your frontal lobe logical-thinking brain system) to put things into perspective and to come up with a plan to get around the challenge. Given no time to think, because the emotional-thinking limbic areas have already spurred the body into action, the easier option to take is to stay at home and control the things that bring reward and a sense of security and of being in control.

What would you say to someone else who was experiencing the same thing? “Yes, you’re tired, but I’m sure once you get to the gym, you’ll feel invigorated enough to workout.” Or, “Yes, you’re tired and stressed from work, but don’t let others stop you from having a workout and of getting fit!” How difficult is it, really, to be prepared to ‘say’ the same things to yourself in your head, or indeed out loud if it helps?

Being prepared to deal with these setbacks has an intrinsic reward in itself: once you successfully implement your intention to go to the gym no matter what, your sense of emotional mastery is increased. You are rewarded for having mastered yourself in the moment, shown commitment to your goal in the face of emotional opposition, proven to be resilient to the temptations of an easy option, a cup of tea, a night infront of the TV and all the fault in the world being attributed to everyone else but you. Your self-esteem is that little bit stronger. Yes, your workout regime is challenging, but your self-discipline is robust enough to carry you through. And after six months of managing yourself and being dedicated to your resolution, you can look back and notice the difference.

So, take the time now to think about how you could fail in implementing your New Year resolutions. The more time spent thinking about how it could go wrong before it does, and what you could do about it, the greater the number of choices for action  you will have available to you in the moment that a problem arises. Spending time thinking about the negatives and making contingency plans is a positive thing to do: it’ll help you avoid setbacks, relapses and failure.