For many, the beginning of a new year is a time for reflection and renewed optimism. Setting resolutions or goals inspire some and frustrate many on the path to creating change. Maybe you’ve done this before and told yourself that you will strive to “eat healthy,” “save money,” or “achieve more success at work.” You may have had success or maybe you find that your motivation fizzles out in early February. After enough failure many people feel discouraged and give up on the whole idea.
Why do many “resolutions” fail and what is an alternative route to personal growth?
Long-term and sustained change is often more successful when we consider what is most important to us and how we want to act and engage with ourselves and others. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, for short) is a therapeutic approach developed by Steven Hayes that focuses on using values to motivate and guide change to live a more fulfilling life. ACT uses mindfulness to encourage being fully present and engaged in your life and to handle the challenges that are an inevitable part of life.
Values vs. Goals
According to Stephen Harris (2019), values “describe how we want to behave in this moment and on an ongoing basis” and they represent our desires for how we want to engage in the world and treat ourselves. Authenticity, kindness, self-respect, and curiosity are examples of values. It’s important to remember that values are ongoing, and that they focus on the here and now. For example, if you lose your job, you can still be hard-working, persistent, and productive.
While a value such as, “being loving” is always available to act on, goals have no guarantee, like “getting married.” Goals are future-focused, which can pull us out of the present and we can miss out enjoying what is right in front of us. This happens whenever we get in this mindset: “if I can just get a promotion” or “just find a partner, I’ll finally be happy/successful/healthy.”
Identifying Your Values
If you don’t have a ready list of values, that’s ok! This isn’t something a lot of people consciously think about. So, pause for a minute, and try asking yourself some of the following questions:
What is most important to me? (Be honest with yourself and consider if this is something you feel should be important to you because of influence from your culture/parents/friends/etc.)
What, if anything, in my life right now gives me a sense of meaning or purpose?
How do I want to be remembered?
What do my fears and worries show me that I care about? What do they remind me is very important?
If I were being the person I want to be, how would I start acting?
This may be really challenging. This could evoke some disappointment or maybe you don’t have any answers to these questions. Spend some time with these questions or reach out for support – without an “inner compass,” it can be difficult to make change.
Take Action, ‘Live’ Your Values
With insight into what matters most, you are ready to take action! If you value “health,” you set an attainable goal and may choose to build a weight loss plan. As you move towards your goals, continue to re-assess if your actions are in line with your values. For example, if you are working on losing weight, keep checking in with yourself to determine if your behaviors are congruent with a desire for health, not a desire to make your ex-partner jealous.
As you have probably experienced, establishing change inevitably results in mistakes or slip-ups. ACT advocates for self-compassion* and acknowledgement of the feeling of defeat, instead of using self-criticism, which can get in the way of sticking with a goal. To clarify, ACT encourages us to make space for our painful thoughts and feelings AND continue to take action and move towards our goals.
Living a Meaningful Life
Focusing on values, not just goals, can leave you feeling fulfilled, more present, and less defeated. Depending on the situation or where you are at in life, and the demands and responsibilities you face, you may find yourself more committed to some values and less committed to others. Working towards a promotion at work may mean that you devote less time with friends, while being more aligned with your value of professional growth. This is normal! Maintaining an awareness of what guides and directs behavior can help us be intentional about the choices we make.
January 1st comes only once a year but think about revisiting your values more frequently. Instead of falling back into the cycle of optimism and defeat, consider trying out a new approach this year to live a more fulfilling life.
*See our previous blog post for more information on self-compassion!