This article first appeared on Happify.
What is it about resolutions? They’re so exciting to set but so hard to keep. As a coach, I spend a lot of time figuring out what will help my clients stick to the intentions they set for their lives. Here’s what I’ve learned: We usually go about our goals like an adult forcibly trying to get a lazy, unruly, or unmotivated child to do what’s right.
If you’re a parent, or have worked with kids, you likely know that this top-down strategy rarely works, especially in the long term. Even if you’re successful in reaching your goal, the journey is miserable; you get to the end and realize that you lost something precious along the way.
It’s the same with our goals because there’s a little child in all of us. Some of us know it as the primitive part of the brain that’s motivated to run away from discomfort and hard work and make a beeline toward pleasure. But this impoverished understanding of the inner self disconnects us from our true power.
The reality is that the inner child also holds our dreams, our deepest desires, and the most alive and authentic version of ourselves.
When we set resolutions without consulting with that part of ourselves, we fight a losing battle. The primitive brain is far quicker and far more vocal because it evolved to safeguard our survival.
Today, rather than helping us stay vigilant and safe, the impulses of the primitive brain are more likely responsible for why you eat chocolate cake even though you’re trying to lose weight. Or why you roll over in your warm bed when the alarm goes off instead of putting on your workout clothes.
For the primitive brain, anything that gets you out of your comfort zone, or your safety zone, is perceived as a threat. And all the convincing of your rational adult brain doesn’t stand much of a chance when your safety is at stake. Or so it seems to your inner child.
4 Steps to Making Sure Your Resolutions Align with Your Intentions
So, how do we stick to our resolutions? We need to align the inner adult and child so that the journey is joyful and the outcome makes your heart sing. Here are four steps that will help you do so.
Step 1: Know Your Why
Adults, unlike children, are heavily influenced by societal expectations. Some of it is normal and beneficial—we do, after all, live in the real world. But often, this inner adult crowds out the more authentic self, and our goals and desires become a reflection of what others value or reward.
To set intrinsic goals, the ones that draw us forward, it can help to consult with the inner child. What do we really want to achieve with this goal? Why is that important? Why is it exciting? What will achieving it mean to us? Or to those we love or lead?
If you take the time to think deeply about it, you’ll likely find a reason that connects you to something larger than yourself. Maybe you want a higher position at your firm because you’ll be able to send your child to the university of their choice. Or you’d like to go to bed earlier because it will allow you to be more rested and present with those you love or those you lead.
Step 2: Make It Fun
Once you know the why of your goal, think about the how, because there are many pathways to the same outcome. Keep your inner child in mind. What do you enjoy doing? What are the things that come naturally to you?
If you want to get fit, think of an activity that you love. You don’t have to sweat it out at the gym if the mere thought of it depresses you. You can go for a swim, join a dance class, sign up to play volleyball in a rec league, take up cycling, or find a hiking group and explore the trails around where you live.
Similarly, if your intention is to be more patient with someone at home or work, play to your top strengths. If emotional regulation isn’t your top quality, but empathy is, try to spend more time in their shoes. It may help you see aspects of them that enable you to be more patient and accepting.
Step 3: Make It Easy
Old habits are hard to let go because they don’t take up mental energy. But when these habits are getting in the way of achieving our goals, we need to do things differently. And this naturally requires some work and may create some feelings of resistance initially. Remember, the inner child likes comfort.
We can’t power our way through because, as social psychologist and author Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D., has shown, willpower is a depleting resource. You may be able to force yourself to do an hour at the gym the first week of January. But come the end of the month, your goal will be a distant memory.
The trick is to start small. Very small. In his book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything, behavior scientist B.J. Fogg, Ph.D., emphasizes that the new behavior needs to be so small that it takes barely any effort at all.
If your goal is indeed an hour at the gym every morning, begin with five minutes. Or two. You’re establishing a pattern in the brain that will become your new habit so you don’t waste precious mental energy arguing with yourself about why today is not the right day to exercise.
Step 4: Be an Ally
Imagine, just for a minute, a little toddler learning to walk. She holds on to the table, excitement in her eyes, yet not quite ready to let go. “Come on!” cries the eager parent. “Other kids are running already; you had better get this right!” As she lets go of the table, she falters and then falls. The parent shakes her head in dismay and says, “Again! You’ll never get there. What’s wrong with you?”
Kind of hard to believe, right? And yet this is pretty much the way many of us talk to ourselves. We push and compare until even our most heartfelt dreams lose their sparkle. We beat ourselves up when we fail, receive criticism, or face setbacks we couldn’t have foreseen. Or we blame others and life, and end up feeling like a victim.
What we need in that moment is exactly what a little toddler needs: a compassionate and nonjudgmental presence who is her greatest source of support.
If you’re not being your best ally, you need to think about the thoughts and feelings that will help you achieve your goals. What can you say to yourself when you’ve lost your motivation? How will you safeguard your energy? What will you say to yourself when things go well? When they don’t?
We’re wired to grow and become more of who we are—a propensity inherent in the inner child. As children, we happily made sandcastles on the beach, oblivious to how they measured up against someone else’s, or eagerly started over when the waves washed them away. These four steps will help you bring that very energy to your adult goals—so that you’re not setting the same resolutions year after year.