Give up New Year's Resolutions to Thrive in 2015

By Kate Bennett, PsyD and Corrie Van Horne, RDN

With the new year comes a natural instinct to reflect, look back on the year that passed, and prepare for the year ahead. Often times, this process leads to new year’s resolutions: Lists of things that people want to accomplish to improve or change their lives. We would like to challenge the tradition of resolutions by making 2015 the year of new year’s intentions.

Resolutions are problematic because they focus on what people do not want in their lives (i.e. stop eating certain foods or get out of debt) and absolutes (i.e. lose a specific amount of weight or give up smoking instantly). The problem with focusing on you do not want in your life is that your brain hears what you do not want versus the negation of it. For example, if you think to yourself, I do not want to eat that chocolate cake at the party tonight, your brain is solely focused on the chocolate cake. As a result you cannot stop thinking about it, likely end up eating the cake, and ultimately feel bad about your “failure.” Absolutes, also known as all-or-nothing thinking, leave little room for flexibility or adaptability as life happens. Inevitably, when people create an absolute resolution, life happens (interferes with the rigidity of the desired change) and people give up. For example, if you decide to follow a certain diet in 2015 but then find yourself driving through New Mexico desert land, you are certain to feel anxious and defeated as you stop to order "bad" food. Why bother trying to improve your life if situations continue to interfere with the perfect pursuit of that new resolution?

Given that resolutions set people up for failure, we propose that you start 2015 off with intentions: Positive changes that you would like to pursue over the coming year. By focusing on what you want to happen, you are more likely to achieve it. Furthermore, intentions allow you to work towards a goal in small increments versus expect overnight success. This creates room for flexibility and adaptability while life happens and circumstances change.

Here are a few ideas for New Year’s Intentions that will help improve your happiness:

1. Make 2015 a year of gratitude. Over the past couple of years, gratitude has become an increasingly more popular topic of conversation in mainstream media and individual lives. There is good reason for it. Science links gratitude to happiness and well-being. If you want to improve your overall happiness, consider starting a daily gratitude journal. Commit to recording a few things that you are thankful for at some point each day. Remember, no matter how rotten the day, there is always something to be grateful for. Consider using this five year journal so that you can reflect back on past years as you maintain your journal over time.

2. Create time to connect authentically with others. As technology advances and social media increases in popularity, many people rely on texting, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to feel connected to others. While it is convenient to text a friend, enjoyable to peruse online pictures, and effortless to scroll through a Twitter feed, these activities tend to create more distance between friends than closeness. Set an intention to check-in weekly with friends or family members in-person or on the phone. You will be amazed by how much more satisfied you feel after spending an hour talking with a good friend compared to spending that same hour scrolling through Facebook.

3. Take up the practice of self-compassion. We live in a society that focuses on comparison and achievements to build respect and self-worth. The reality is that comparisons lead to negative self-talk and ultimately interfere with individual happiness, values, goals, and relationships. Rather than criticize yourself for another 365 days, commit to practicing self-compassion instead. Take time to engage in self-care (i.e. take a warm bath or go to bed early) when you are tired rather than force yourself to work late because a co-worker always seems one step ahead of you.

4. Look back to move ahead. Somewhere along the way, many of us learned that anything short of perfection is unacceptable and, worse, labels you as a failure. The reality is that nobody and nothing is perfect. In fact, the word imperfect spells “I’m Perfect.” Let 2015 become the year that you embrace both your strengths and weaknesses. Rather than constantly evaluate your flaws and search for areas of improvement, focus on your strengths and learn from your mistakes. Embrace mistakes as a learning opportunity. Great things come from those who are brave enough to identify what went wrong and use that information to try a second time (or third or fourth or fifth). Ask yourself, "What worked and what can I improve upon?"

5. Practice mindfulness daily. The eastern tradition of mindfulness and meditation is becoming an increasingly more mainstream practice and for a good reason: Too much distraction, comparison, criticism, and productivity takes away from the simple pleasures in life. When you slow your mind down, your awareness of the things right in front of you intensifies, the mind quiets, and contentment increases. Next time you notice yourself worrying, take a deep breath, figure out when you have time to address the problem (if you have not already done so), and let it go. Worrying every minute of the coming day will not solve the problem but it will interfere with happiness and satisfaction. Instead, focus on the friends and family right in front of you, enjoy the beautiful blue sky, or simply fall asleep. Let go and cherish the present moment.

If changing your relationship with food is the top priority for 2015, we encourage you to not focus on weight loss or restricting food intake but, rather, set intentions based on balance, variety, and moderation.

6. Slow down. While this can be difficult, it is important to slow down when it comes to planning, preparing, and eating food. When planning and preparing food, focus on what sounds good. Take time to plan meals and prepare the food while contemplating the gratitude that you feel for the food itself or other aspects of the food like nourishment, satisfaction, and possibly pleasure. When eating, take time to engage in all five senses, slowing down to enjoy and savor the textures, aromas, tastes, and visual aesthetic of your food.   

7. Trust. We all have an inner wisdom, that with practice and perseverance, we can become attuned to. Our bodies are designed to regulate themselves, let us know when they need nourishment, and indicate what type of nourishment they need. Take time to listen to your intuition in order to grow and develop trust in your body and to develop a more balanced relationship with food. Note: Slowing down will enhance your ability to respond intuitively to hunger and fullness cues and trust your body.

8. Engage. Meal time can be a time to be still, to rest, and also a time to connect. When sitting down for a meal or a snack, whether it is with others or alone, fully engage in the process. If the meal is shared with others try to focus on the conversation and connection. If you are eating alone, bring awareness to your senses and the feelings and thoughts that come up for you while eating. 

9. Nourish. Remember, food is a source of nourishment for the body and the connection that often happens at meal time is nourishment for the soul. Rather than focus on good or bad or right or wrong, take time to experience the nourishment of your body and soul, expressing the gratitude you may feel. 

Finally, remember that while the start of a new year is a convenient time to implement positive changes in your life, you can set intentions and bring them into practice any day of the year. The most important thing to do is to identify where you want to head and then create daily steps for leading you in that direction.

May 2015 bring you joy and happiness as you learn from the past and move towards the future.

Thrive into the Weekend (3.14.14)

[Thrive into the Weekend: A blog series designed to empower athletes to thrive in life and sport by encouraging intentional action]

By Kate Bennett, PsyD

Athletes achieve success when preparation meets hard work. Without the hard work, athletes will not be physically fit enough to compete with other athletes in good form. Likewise, without mental preparation before events, athletes will struggle to concentrate during key moments despite hoping for peak performance.

Building off my post earlier this week, identify one specific routine to try in the moments before your next performance. You may choose to use goal setting, visualization, positive affirmations, or breathing techniques. After you select a skill to try, take a moment to visualize yourself practicing the new skill prior to competition. Settle into a chair with your feet flat on the ground, take a few deep breaths, and imagine yourself utilizing the skill before your event starts. Will you be at the car, in a locker room, to the side of a start line/field/pool/etc, or in a quiet place you find during your warm-up? What will you say, think, and do in that moment to ground yourself and focus your attention on the upcoming performance? How will you feel as you line up at the start? Thrive into the Weekend by practicing mental preparation before you hit the scene of your next event.


Wash Your Lucky Socks: Replace Superstitious Behavior with Pre-Race Routines

By Kate Bennett, PsyD

Over the weekend, my husband and I spent time pedaling in circles on the grass and in business parks helping Colorado’s newest racers develop basic skills and knowledge for the upcoming season. The athletes asked many questions that come as second nature to experienced racers. Responding to these questions and knowing that the season for many endurance sports is just beginning, this seems like an opportune time to address a fundamental aspect of any athlete’s success: Routines.

While some people are wired to plan ahead, others naturally fly by the seat of their pants. Regardless of your preference, it is essential to develop race day routines to ensure success as an athlete. Routines allow athletes to prepare for competition, execute skills, and recover from mistakes mid-performance. More importantly, they create opportunities for consistency and mindfulness throughout competition. Inevitably, if you develop a race day routine, you will more adeptly funnel your energy as well as bring clarity to your attentional focus.

To be clear, routines are not synonymous with superstitions. While athletes may have a pair of lucky socks, the socks will have no bearing on their actual performance. Superstitions are irrational and do not have any basis for directly impacting success, though there may be a placebo effect in some cases. Routines, on the other hand, will predictably and positively impact performance by creating control in the moments leading up to events. Superstitions take control away as athletes doubt themselves if they are not able to engage in superstitious behaviors (i.e. not wearing the lucky socks). At the end of the day, we all know that lucky socks will not impact an outcome while focused preparation can significantly enhance performance under pressure.

The goal of pre-race routines is to prepare yourself mentally and physically for the upcoming performance. They should be simple and flexible. For planners, your race day routine may be a series of activities compiled into a full day of preparation including meals, arrival time, warm-ups, and mental routines as your start time draws near. Others, who are not into details and schedules, may be more prone to practice a routine as they line up to race such as taking deep breaths to focus attention, reciting positive affirmations, mentally rehearsing the ideal performance, reviewing race goals, or engaging in behaviors to excite one’s body and mind.

There are many options for creating pre-race routines. You may know yourself well enough to identify exactly which options are best for you while others may need to explore several options to find the ideal routine for themselves. You may already have routines in place but see room for improvement such as preparing psychologically before the race. Early season races are a great time to explore a variety of routines as you prepare physically and mentally for peak performances this season.

Think back to past performances and explore whether utilizing a routine may have helped. Perhaps, you have a routine in place but are able to identify room for improvement in the upcoming season. New racers, ask seasoned athletes what works for them. Remember, routines are flexible and should be constantly adapting to your needs as an athlete. Likewise, routines that work for one person may be the opposite of your individual needs. Create a routine for yourself and thrive into the coming season.