For a lot of folks, the end of January means guilty feelings and disappointment when we realize we haven’t yet radically transformed in the three to four weeks since the New Year.
We might call this being caught in the trap of the New Year’s Disillusion Cycle (or more boldly, the New Year’s Delusion Cycle). Probably the worst thing about this self-defeating cycle is it tricks us into thinking we should give up on planning — and our goals for the year, altogether — before we’ve even given them a real shot.
A useful lesson from this annual letdown is understanding that our most important goals and plans generally don’t come to full fruition on a couple-week time scale.
So to help you in climbing out of the slump, we’ve made a short guide for how to escape the dreaded New Year’s disillusion cycle.
What to do if you’re stuck in disillusionment
1. SMART-proof your goals. Make sure your goals are Simple, Meaningful, Achievable, Realistic, and Trackable. If your success plan doesn’t have these qualities, at some point it’s bound to leave you disappointed.
Goal setting itself needn’t be done away with, just because some disappointment is inevitable on the way to meeting our goals. (If setting goals and keeping them wasn’t so indispensable to self-fulfillment, and if achieving goals didn’t present a challenge that sometimes requires help, I and others in the coaching business would be hard on our luck.) What is important is that we need to set goals that work for us rather than against us.
Let’s work with a simple example, setting a goal such as, “I want to lose 20 pounds.”
First off, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight, for health reasons — but if you don’t understand your deeper reason why you want to lose weight, you’re missing out on the meaning piece, and you’ll be less likely to stick with the more difficult actions to make it a reality. Having a meaningful goal is fuel for your willpower.
Likewise, if you tell yourself “I want to lose weight” and have a meaningful reason, but don’t make the goal actionable and trackable, you’re going to struggle. An actionable and trackable goal would be: I’ll work out or go to the gym four times per week.
If your goal is already SMART and you still feel demotivated, here are a few other tips that might help you keep on keeping on.
2. Recognize where you’re at in the cycle. The first step is knowing you’re in the disillusion cycle. Once you’ve recognized the problem, you can better calculate your next moves. It also means there’s likely to be an up-tick around the corner. The Gartner Hype Cycle is a model that tracks how technology use evolves over time, but it makes a good analogy for when we ourselves are adopting new habits and trying to pursue self-transformation goals.
The way the Hype Cycle functions is that there’s a trigger (in this case, the New Year) when you reevaluate where you’re at in your life, and whether or not you’re on track towards your overall, big picture, what-do-I-want-before-I-die goals. This is an overall positive move, in that you at least recognize what you want.
Even if you are mostly headed in the right direction, you should know that after this initial trigger is a “peak of inflated expectations,” and after that a “trough of disillusionment,” which is exactly what it sounds like. If you’re expecting that, you can prepare yourself, and get ready to set yourself back on track.
“The trough of disillusionment” happens precisely because we misassess the amount of time, energy and attention (TEA) it’s going to take to pursue and ultimately meet our goal. It might actually look like hard work at some point. The good news is that right around the corner from the trough of disillusionment is the “slope of enlightenment.”
The slope of enlightenment means that you understand well where the problem areas lie, and where your struggles will be in the next 11 months, as you pursue your goal. This added understanding is a tool you can wield, to keep yourself better on track, while knowing where you’re likely to slip up.
3. Don’t let discouragement win. It’s not too late. In fact, it’s never too late to start working towards a goal that once inspired you. There’s still plenty of time to double down on the 11 months left ahead of you in 2022. Don’t abandon the impulse that led you to make a resolution, just because it’s off to a rocky start. Anyone who has ever made a resolution or a longer term plan knows there’s a good likelihood the plan will need readjustment. As the famed Dwight D. Eisenhower quote goes, “Plans are useless, but planning is everything.”
Plans are made to be changed, and that’s never more true than when it comes to a New Year’s resolution. You’re likely to realize exactly how that plan needs to change just around now, in late January, when the hype of the new year, and the shine of the newness of everything you’ve imagined for yourself is starting to wear off. Interest wanes, and we begin to doubt our progress, or whether we can deliver.
Reframing our goals in a new positive light is a technique used in positive psychology to increase our chances of success. Getting back to the drawing board, and planning specific actions you can take will get you closer to achieving what you’ve envisioned.
Is there a way to skip the cycle altogether?
The question a lot of people have been asking for a long time is whether it’s possible to skip this whole disillusion cycle thing . If it’s a cycle and we know the way it’s going to go, why can’t we just bypass it altogether?
One of the best ways to avoid the cycle is increasing your awareness (as in this last tip of recognizing where you’re at). The more you’re aware of the tricks your brain will play on you (headtrash, anyone?) the less you’re likely to end up slave to its vicissitudes and frustrations.
If you’re expecting the blow it’s less likely to knock you on your back or set you off course. You’ll be prepared and know what’s necessary to stay the course.
The other important way to avoid or break the cycle is this: stop overcommitting yourself. If you’re having trouble keeping up with your New Year’s resolution, it might be an issue of overloading yourself with too many goals and promises all at once. If that’s you, take some time to think about where you put your time, energy, and attention.
And you might want to throw out and invert the hypocrisy and deadweight of New Year’s resolutions altogether, by making instead what I’ve heard called “New Year’s dissolutions”: deciding what to cut out of your life, or stop trying on. After undertaking some of these “dissolutions” you may find you’re in a much better position — energy-, time-, and attention-wise — to work on the projects that matter most to you.