It’s that time of year again when we usher out the past and ring in the New Year. Along with it, many elect to take on new goals for their lives in the form of New Year’s resolutions. 

These visions of remaking our lives anew are filled with all the hope, enthusiasm, and motivation built up over the past year, and they encompass everything we’d like to make better about our lives. However, they don’t always turn out the way we expect.

For clinicians, the story is not new. Clients come into our office, some for the first time, others returning, and still others may want to return after some time away. They’ve been thinking about their lives and they realize they want to make changes. They start with all the best intentions, but somewhere along the way, life interrupts them. Whether they have trouble incorporating the steps needed to make the changes they desire, or they find that things are harder to change than they first thought, it’s our job to help them evaluate their own lives and make the changes necessary to become the person they want to be.

Here are 4 ways to help clients keep their New Year’s resolutions.

4 Ways to Help Clients Keep New Year’s Resolutions

1.) Start with small, measurable steps

If clients start with goals that are too large to fit into their lives, and too amorphous to be defined or measured, they’re going to have a harder time reaching them. For one thing, it’s hard to know if your client has reached a goal if the goal can’t be measured. Because things that can’t be defined can’t be measured, a fundamental step in helping our clients achieve their goals is to begin with definite goals.

In goal-setting lingo, the term “SMART goals” is a common phrase. Coined in 1954 by management consultant and author of 39 books, Peter F. Drucker, the term refers to goals that are specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and timely.

For example, a goal to “get fit” is actionable, but is not specific enough. One person’s fit may be another person’s lazy. For your client, it is imperative to define just what getting fit means. Perhaps this means being able to run three miles without stopping. Perhaps it means achieving a set of pre-measured exercises, like 20 pushups, 20 squats, 20 lunges, and 10 pullups. In any case, to make the goal fit into the SMART acronym, we have to be able to measure it.

Secondly, a goal to get fit is not timely. Just when is your client supposed to reach this goal? A goal meant for next year could happen anytime within the year, and because of this, again, we can’t measure it.

Not only does your client’s goal need to be well-defined and timely, it also has to be realistic. Regardless of the size of your client’s goals, they become a lot more attainable when they start with small steps. We know that motivation is not a problem in the beginning, but we also know that once clients get started, the gravity of their goals sets in, and their motivation wanes. However, if we start with goals that are small and within reach, our clients can build confidence as they reach them, and they can also see a way toward their larger goals.

2.) Incorporate flexibility

One of the most difficult things about reaching goals is that things don’t always go as planned. Your client may begin with the idea that she will get up bright and early every morning to go for a run, only to find herself working late into the night with unexpected work demands, rendering her unable to get up early in the morning.

Similarly, your client may find that, as she starts toward her goals, she doesn’t feel the same way about them. What started as a good idea now seems to pale in comparison to being comfortable, and that’s okay. According to Nicholas Cole, a contributor at Inc. magazine, one big reason people give up on their goals too early is because they haven’t cultivated the needed discipline on the days they are not inspired.

Reaching goals requires that our clients move out of their comfort zone, into discomfort. This is where flexibility becomes a crucial element – to be able to cope with both the disillusionment of goals not seeming what they are cracked up to be and with life challenges that may get in the way, our clients are going to have to adapt, to be willing to have a “do what it takes” attitude toward reaching their goals.

Your client may find that she doesn’t get up early in the morning for her run like she intended, but that she still fits in a two mile walk at the end of the day. This is where that confidence factor comes in. To be successful, our clients must feel that, even in improbable circumstances, they can still reach their goals.

3.) Make it a community effort

Trying to achieve goals can feel like a lonely process. We’re asking ourselves to do something we haven’t done before and to cope with feeling differently. Despite our best efforts to predict the outcome and the way we will feel about that outcome, chances are, we will not be correct.

This is what Daniel Gilbert, the author of Stumbling On Happiness calls “affective forecasting”. In his work with Timothy Wilson, Gilbert found that people frequently misjudge what will make them happy. How people feel in the moment acts like a filter through which we attempt to predict the future. The result is that we often overestimate how positive or negative we will feel about future situations. Then, of course, we make predictions based on these faulty perceptions.

Feeling wrong about their predictions can make our clients feel as if they’d made the wrong decisions. Now couple that with people who may be threatened by our client’s efforts toward improving themselves and we have the recipe for failure.

This is where building a community of supporters becomes so important. Sharing their daily progress with a community of supporters can help our clients feel as if they are part of something much larger than themselves. When people share our client’s vision and participate in reaching their own goals, they also share in the struggle to get there. Because relationships are reciprocal, this means that they will rally for our clients when they feel low, and our clients will rally for them when they feel low. The payoff is twofold – our clients are more likely to reach their goals, and the process itself begins to feel good. 

4.) Utilize a commitment device

According to Professor of Behavioral Economics and Psychology at Duke University, Dan Ariely, a commitment device is something that makes sure our future self will behave the way our current self wants us to. One easy example of a commitment device is automatic deposits made into our savings account. Because the decision is predetermined, we don’t have to encounter the impulses that may change our choice to save in the future. 

Commitment devices can be anything from cutting up our credit cards to purchasing foods to meal plans for those seeking good nutrition. Putting a price on our vices in this way helps us consider the consequences and utilize the resources to reach our goals.

For clients, commitment devices can be incredibly powerful because they bring to light the consequences of not reaching their goals. In doing so, they help them build counter arguments for the many reasons they may come up with to give up early. For example, a client may tell herself that she is too tired to exercise on a given night, but when she thinks about the $500 dollars she has deposited in her friend’s account, only to be returned when she reaches her fitness goals, her reasons for working out suddenly become much stronger.

Commitment devices put enormous power behind our clients’ goals because they come with hefty consequences. But they are also potent reminders that reaching their goals is possible, despite their own resistance.

New Year’s Resolutions: A Tool for Clients to Grow

When done right, New Year’s resolutions have the power to enact significant change in the lives of our clients, often giving them the tools to grow in directions that matter the most to them. As psychotherapists, counselors, and mental health practitioners, it’s our duty to help guide our clients to become the best versions of themselves, depending on their own emotions, goals, missions, and visions.

As such, New Year’s resolutions can be powerful motivators for change, with numerous positive outcomes. When we help our clients start with small, measurable goals, incorporate flexibility, build a community, and utilize commitment devices, we can play a pivotal role in their success.