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The wrong way to make a New Year’s resolution

By Jennie Wong
Jennie Wong
Jennie Wong, Ph.D., is a nationally syndicated columnist, executive coach, and the creator of the product quiz website

Are you turned off by the ritual of making New Year’s resolutions? Have you made them in the past, only to see your commitment fade by Groundhog Day?

After all, it’s quite common for gyms to be full in January and empty by February. But don’t blame 2014 for losing that new-car smell; blame the resolution.

There are four common types of New Year’s resolutions that can set you up for failure.

Good-intentions resolutions

Get healthy, get organized, give back. These are typical resolutions that express the maker’s good intentions. These noble and healthy impulses are actually a great place to start when it comes to making resolutions, but if you stop at these aspirational statements, you’re left with a resolution that has a poor chance of success.

If you want to get healthy, ask yourself, “What does healthy mean to me?” What is your specific and unique version of being healthy? For a desk jockey, it might mean a daily walk. But for a salon owner who is on their feet all day, it might mean using their night guard to stop grinding their teeth.

‘Stop’ resolutions

Quit biting my nails, don’t get so stressed out, no more eating sweets. These are common “stop” resolutions. These are a particularly pernicious type of New Year’s resolution, as they are the most likely to backfire.

The reason stop resolutions don’t work has to do with the deep structure of the brain, where the visual, image processing part of our brain is far older than the abstract, language processing part of our brain. But you don’t have to be a neuroscientist to understand this for yourself. Just repeat the sentence, “Don’t think about pink elephants,” to yourself a couple of times and see how successful you are.

Similarly, when we tell ourselves, “Don’t eat that cookie,” the deepest, most ancient part of our brain simply hears, “Cookie!” The antidote, not surprisingly, is the “start” resolution. Resolve instead to start eating fruit after every meal to greatly increase your likelihood of success.

The big resolutions

When we really, really mean it, and we’re not kidding around anymore, we tend to make the big resolution. Move to New York and become a chef. Sell my business and travel the world. Find the love of my life and get married.

In these moments, we are associating the size of the goal with the size of our commitment, and expressing the strength of our desire through sheer scope.

However, by making a mammoth resolution, you increase the risk of becoming overwhelmed. If you truly do want to move to New York and become a chef, resolve instead to enroll in a culinary arts program, or to apply for sous-chef jobs to get some experience and start building your resume. Focus on the next step you need to take.

Old resolutions

These are your personal greatest hits. Lose 10 pounds, stop yelling at the kids, file my receipts every week. If you’ve made a resolution in at least 2 prior years, it qualifies as an old resolution.

If there are certain goals that you can’t or won’t let go of, at least let go of the old strategies. If you’ve always tried focusing on exercise, this year focus on diet instead. If you’ve always tried paper folders in the past, this year try digital scanning. But whatever you do, don’t rely on willpower. Remember, “try harder” is not a strategy! Instead, try something you’ve never done before. No matter whether it works or not, you’ll learn something that will help you in the long run.

So as we begin the year anew, beware of good intentions, stop resolutions, the big, and the old. Instead, embrace small, specific things you’ve never tried before and start conquering 2014 through better resolutions.

Jennie Wong, Ph.D. is a Charlotte-based executive coach and the founder of, a friendsourcing tool for online shopping.
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