Making change happen
Most people use the start of a new year to review how things have gone in the past year. Then, they look ahead to decide what they want to change. Why is this time so significant for change?
Starting a new calendar year can feel like starting on a fresh new page. A new beginning invites us to reflect on how things are going and to consider how we would like things to be.
As we reflect, we may notice that we have been neglecting some of our goals. Or, we may discover that we would like to focus on something different.
Taking time to reflect helps to restore hope and commitment to our goals.
Perhaps you already have considered what you would like to change this year. Some of you may want to meet new people by joining a society or doing some volunteering. Or perhaps you want to find ways to be more productive so that you can make progress with your studies.
Whatever you decide, the first step is to identify what you will enable you to achieve them, and what could hinder your efforts.
Why is it difficult to persevere with our resolutions?
Underestimating the challenge: We tend to make resolutions when we are in a more relaxed state, and we may not take time to consider what it will take to achieve the goal.
It requires dedicated time and effort to achieve something of value, but sometimes we do not realise what making the change will feel like. It can feel too uncomfortable or hard work making us want to go back to what we were used to.
At other times, we decide to make changes because we are so frustrated with the current situation (or a behaviour), that we focus on what we don’t want rather than on what we are going to do to achieve our goals.
Deciding what we want to do is a start. However, it is difficult to follow through with a goal if we are not aware of the possible obstacles so that we can prepare for them. It is necessary to find alternative ways of problem-solving the situation, and have a clear idea of each step we need to take so that we can make progress.
Create specific goals: We tend to set goals that are too general which are hard to break down into smaller chunks to make them more manageable.
We may start with enthusiasm but soon lose motivation because we get side-tracked, or feel frustrated because things are not working out as we imagined.
For example, instead of saying “I want to make progress in my dissertation/essay/project or prepare for my exams” make it more concrete: “I will write 300 words a day to practice” or “I will review my notes each week.” Having a clear picture of what you need to do will make it possible to maintain your focus on the task and keep track of your progress. Your motivation and ability to sustain your efforts will increase as you notice the progress you are making.
Create a plan: To make sure that you will follow through with your resolutions it is best to have a plan outlining the steps you will take. This will make it more likely that you will move from intentions to actions.
Often, we don’t consider other factors that may interrupt or distract us from our efforts. For example, if you would like to reduce the stress as a result of a last-minute hurry to meet a deadline, you can plan your assignments so that you can allocate enough time to each one.
If you are keen to do well in the exams, you could check your notes every week to remember the material.
Planning will allow some flexibility so that if you feel unwell, or there is a situation that requires your attention, it will be less stressful because you will have created some spaces to manage the interruptions.
A written plan will provide you with a method to keep track of your progress. For example, you could decide to finish assignments a day before the deadline to allow time to review what you’ve written. It will give you time to deal with any potential technical issues, and it will allow you to improve your work as often lost marks are due to mistakes that could have been avoided because there was no time to correct them.
Track your progress: Make regular notes to log what you have done towards your goal. Identify a system that works for you, and it will also serve as a reminder of your next step. Reviewing your progress will boost your motivation to keep going.
Try new things: You could make this year the time that you do something different. For example, you might be interested in developing a new hobby or exercise more regularly to have more energy and feel well. Or perhaps you would like to increase your concentration to study better and pay attention to what is happening around you.
Take care of your health: You may have decided already to prioritise eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep. Sleep is important for our health, to maintain our mood stable, to focus and to maintain our energy.
When we feel run down and stressed it can weaken our immune system making us more vulnerable to illnesses.
Practising mindful breathing exercises regularly contributes to relieving stress symptoms, managing worry thoughts and improving concentration. Research also shows that it can help to manage symptoms of anxiety and depression. You can start with a five-minute exercise a day and notice how you feel.
Unplug: Switching off from technology for a while will free up time to focus on your goals.
It will increase your ability to manage distractions, and it will allow you to notice your environment as well as have time to relate to others in social situations.
These days many people are concerned that they are too distracted by technology and notice this is affecting their work. Perhaps you have decided that you want to manage your time better to prevent falling behind with your studies. You may decide that you will take a break from your phone for a while to have time for what you want or need to do.
When we are connected to our phones or other digital devices, it is easy for time to go by without noticing. Hours can disappear while we are checking the constant notifications demanding our attention. We let it happen almost automatically without stopping to consider whether we want to spend time on it.
Interruptions take us away from what we are focusing on. We tend to react almost automatically, without taking time to ask ourselves if these require our immediate attention, or whether they can wait. The question is to identify if it is necessary to respond immediately, or not, to determine where we put our attention and efforts so that we can make progress towards our goal.
Managing money: During the holidays it is easy to spend more money than planned for as we want to celebrate and have fun.
If we are not careful, we can end up with not enough funds to cover our expenses, and it could prevent us from saving for something we value.
Perhaps you would like to save for the summer holidays, or you may need to save to make payments for accommodation or other commitments.
Prepare for setbacks: Often we do not follow through with our resolutions because when we revert to old habits, we feel we have failed, and we may give up on our goals. Instead, view setbacks as part of the change process.
It takes time to change old habits and develop new ones. We need to pay attention to what we are doing so that we can prevent getting distracted and maintain our focus on what we want to achieve.
By being aware of our thoughts and behaviours, we can become aware of when our attention wanders to redirect it to what matters to us.
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” (Socrates)
“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in day out.” (Robert Collier)
Baumeister,, R.F., & Tierney, J. (2011) Willpower. Rediscovering our Greatest Strength. London: Penguin Books.
Deci, E. & Flaste, R. (1995) Why We Do What We Do. Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin Books.
Young, S. (2017). Stick with it. The science of lasting behaviour. London: Penguin Life.