• The secret to sustainable change is to start small, and make changes from a place of self-compassion – not self-hatred and all-or-nothing thinking

  • Mindfulness teacher Hannah Jane Thompson offer six tips 

At this time of year, it’s nearly impossible to escape the “new year, new you” rhetoric. 

Whether it’s a new diet, a new fitness regime, a pledge to finally learn how to play the guitar that’s been gathering dust for decades, or suddenly find time to make a dent in your massive to-read pile…the list of ways we’re told to “improve” ourselves is endless. 

And it’s tempting to try.

Resolution refresh

Some of us might even welcome the inevitable swing away from the constant indulgence of Christmas and New Year. For some of us, the excuse of a new start might be the crisp, refreshing tonic we need (although some may want to take it without the gin!).

And after the last two pandemic years, it’s totally understandable that we’re keen to shrug off the sludge of the old, and get stuck into the adventure of the new. 

So if you’re starting a new habit this year with excitement in your heart, then please – don’t think I’m trying to stop you. Having goals can give us the push we need to get out of bed, and most of us need both pleasure and purpose to feel good.

But unlike new calendars, humans tend not to follow linear, consistent lines. And therein lies the issue.

Remember you are not a machine

We’re not robots or machines. We have off days. Our energy fluctuates. Our mood shifts. Motivation is finite. And all that pressure to ditch the junk, run miles every single day, or suddenly transform from couch potato to gluten-free goddess is both unsustainable and unfair on you as a human being. 

Research suggests that up to 80% of all New Year’s Resolutions “fail”. Before long, we’re back on the sofa, scrolling aimlessly, while the guitar gathers more dust and the running shoes get lost in the cupboard.

And it’s easy to get more discouraged, more disillusioned, and more self-critical the more resolutions we seem to “break”. We think it’s our fault for being weak-willed, or that life’s just too busy, and we’ve got no hope of ever making real, lasting change.

So must we resign ourselves to this endless yo-yo of New Year, New You, followed by Failure February and Miserable March? Are New Year’s Resolutions just for other, “better” people?

You might have guessed: My answer is no! 

As a 1-to-1 meditation and mindfulness coach for ambitious women, I see this cycle again and again. Big goals and ambitions, getting crushed by too much pressure, too soon, and a negative inner voice that sabotages us before we even get started.

Our inner critics are never louder than when they’re shouting at us for not being perfect (as if there’s even such a thing). 

It is totally possible (not to mention brave and brilliant) to have big dreams, enact real change, and love the skin you’re in. And it is also possible to make those changes in a gentle, kind, mindful way; no self-hatred necessary.

Rewiring your inner critic into your inner coach (via tools such as mindfulness) not only feels a heck of a lot better, but actually means you stand a chance of sticking to your goals sustainably (and even, dare I say it, enjoyably!).

Here are my top mindful tips for setting – and sticking to – New Year’s Resolutions without losing yourself or your sanity in the process.

1. Start small, work up

Guard against overwhelm by choosing a manageable goal first, and mastering that before moving on. Making new habits isn’t about willpower, or how much you want it, or finding the exact right time or moment or day. It's about repetition and trying, trying, and trying again.

In this case, it might mean doing only five minutes of guitar practice a day, and only moving on to 10 or 30 minutes once that feels easy. Or, if you’re doing something even more challenging, such as eating more healthily, you could start by eating less chocolate in week one, and only then moving on to more veggies in week two.

Trying meditation? Start with three good breaths every day, and then five minutes, then 10. Every minute counts.

2. Choose self-compassion 

Self-compassion is basically the principle that your own “enoughness” rests inside you, cannot and will not be found externally, and that you are already enough, exactly as you are.

This might sound kinda cheesy, until you remember that it’s impossible to hate yourself into long-term change. If you could, we’d all be superheroes by now! It’s not always easy, but instead of motivating yourself away from something you don’t like about yourself, try moving towards something you do.

For example - rather than having your goal be to “lose weight” because you “don’t like” your body, reframe it to be “gaining strength, agility, and energy”, because you respect what your body can do for you. 

This can make your activity more enjoyable too – try something that feels good and fun, such as salsa dancing or gentle jogging, rather than something harsh that you hate, such as HIIT or sprints.

As Louise Hay once wrote: “You have been criticising yourself for years and it hasn't worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.”

Tending to our inner voice and cultivating self-compassion makes everything feel easier, and we can move through the world more happily, with less struggle and pain, and from a place of solid self-belief.

3. Avoid all or nothing thinking

You know that moment when you think you’ve screwed something up, so you throw in the towel? It’s textbook self-sabotage. 

We give up so that we don’t have to do the difficult work of admitting that we messed up. In that moment, it can feel easier to stop and call it (and maybe also ourselves) a “failure”. But if we do, we’ll just delay getting the results we want. It’s that simple. 

Eating one chocolate chip cookie doesn’t mean we give up and eat deep-fried cheeseburgers for the rest of the week. One or two missed workouts doesn’t mean never working out again.

A great way to combat all-or-nothing thinking is to use the phrase “and”. For example: “I missed a session yesterday and I’m going to try again today.” Or, “I felt like that session was terrible and I know that it still counts.” It’s both, not either/or. Rewiring your mind is a lifelong practice. 

That’s why it's so important to fit your new habits mindfully and kindly into your lifestyle, and to give yourself a break when, inevitably, you fall off the wagon.

4. Give yourself permission to be a beginner

If we expect to be fabulous at something the first time we try it, we’ll probably be stratospherically disappointed and give up when we're very much not.

Instead, give yourself permission to struggle at first, and carry on anyway, safe in the knowledge that this doesn’t mean we’ve failed. It’s part of the process. 

In the meditation and mindfulness world, we have a phrase to describe this: “Beginner’s mind”. And when we apply this to the rest of our lives, our inner critic loses her power. 

If we tell her that we don’t expect things to be perfect in the first place, and reframe that criticism to support, she’s lost. The point isn’t to switch your inner voice off. It’s to stop her looking for evidence that you should quit, and give her evidence that you’re on the right track, instead.

Even the slowest jogger is still trying. Even five minutes is better than zero minutes. If the voice in your head is going to be there (which she is), she might as well help you do new things, and keep trying until you - slowly but surely - succeed.

5. Keep track and enjoy rewards

Tracking your sessions – whether of healthy meals, meditation tracks, or guitar practices – builds consistency and a pattern, and encourages you to keep going. 

Whenever you successfully complete a session, make a note of it, or tick it off on a calendar, and build up a record, or visual proof of your habit.

Scientists have called this “closing the habit loop”. Setting the goal opens the loop, doing the habit continues it, and ticking off the session provides confirmation of that, closing the loop.

This gives you structure, and proves something to yourself: “Look at me, showing up for myself. Maybe I actually am worth something! Maybe I can do new and hard things!” 

Before long, it enforces your habit, because you don’t want to break that promise to yourself. 

And when you succeed? Give yourself a reward. A week of walks? Great. Twenty meditation sessions out of a 30-day month? Amazing. 

Treat yourself to something that feels great (anything from a scented candle to a one-off deep house clean, to dinner out, to a quiet night on the sofa) and crucially, let yourself enjoy it. Marinade in your success and give yourself credit for how far you’ve come. You deserve it.

6. Listen to your body

One of my favourite quotes is: “Meditation is not about controlling your thoughts. It’s about finding who you really are, underneath the 10,000 thoughts you have each day.”

This is never more relevant than when trying to start and stick to new, healthy, “New Year” habits. The goal is not to control ourselves, but to enable ourselves to go inwards, and build a better understanding of what we really need to feel good.

In fact, the connection between mental and physical health is now widely recognised. We can use our mind to become more aware of, and kinder towards, our body, and vice-versa.

This might sound a little woo-woo to some, but it’s actually not that weird. We’re used to the idea that we get “butterflies in our stomach” when we’re nervous. This is the same thing.

Regular meditation can help you get in touch with your body, and how your emotions and thoughts affect your physical needs, so you can respond more compassionately to situations and challenges.

So rather than asking yourself how you can force yourself to stick to your new resolutions, you might instead ask: “What do I actually need this New Year?” 

Are your goals really what you thought they were? Do you need to start the day with sprints on the treadmill, when really you’d feel much better with a long walk and an audiobook?

Neither is better or worse. It’s all about finding out what works for you. 

Because the message might be “New Year, New You”, but the real truth is: There was nothing wrong with “the old you” in the first place.

Hannah Jane Thompson is a coach, mindfulness teacher, and author of Breathe Like A Badass: Beat Anxiety & Self-Doubt, Calm Your Inner Critic & Build A No-Nonsense Mindfulness and Meditation Toolkit

Further reading

Don't let mindfulness unleash your inner critic

Why achieving goals won't bring long-term happiness

What exactly is mindfulness?

4 mindfulness tips for a healthy marriage