Turning “Don’t Do” into “To Do” – Setting Yourself up for Success by Avoiding "Dead Man's&q
Updated: Oct 19, 2019
By Julie Raymond, LCPC
The new year for most can be a time of new beginnings and a fresh start. It can be an opportunity to reset, refocus and recharge. As we are already a couple of months into the new year and at the start of Lent, I am frequently reminded by those around me just how very hard it is to keep those “New Year’s resolutions” and other arbitrary things people give up for lent.
Many New Year’s resolutions go a little something like this: “I’m going to lose 10lbs”, “I’m not going to eat carbohydrates”, “I’m going to spend less money” or “I’m going to stop smoking/drinking”. The overall theme here is that we are telling ourselves to not do something. The “I’m not going to _____” or as I like to call them “don’t do” goals often create a barrier for long term success.
Even a well-intentioned goal such as “I’m going to do more of something” can be unrealistic because the goal is too vague and the high expectations associated with the goal ultimately lead to the demise of following through on the goal.
By early March, it has become evident that most of those around me have already “failed” to accomplish their “don’t do” goals. In fact, according to Forbes, only 8% of people keep their New Year’s resolutions and Business Insider finds that “80% of people fail their New Year’s resolutions by February”.
Buying into the idea that a new year should mark giving up or stopping something in your life that you want to change is problematic because it can really set you up for failure.
And come February, all those misplaced intentions lead most people to completely abandon their hopes for a better and healthier year.
When you tell yourself to not do something, you are more likely to obsess about it and feel stuck. Usually when you try to deny yourself something or limit yourself in some way, you actually tend to focus on the very thing you are trying to not think about even more.
Take a pause and try to not think about a pink elephant for one minute. Don’t think about it. If you’re like me and most people, you probably thought about that pink elephant and probably even more if I had said don’t think about a pink elephant but think about a brown elephant.
In Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT), we call these “don’t do” type goals a “dead man’s goal”. Pretty morbid, yes, but dead men can’t drink, they can’t eat and they can’t smoke because they are in fact, dead. If you asked for directions on how to get somewhere and someone told you don’t go down this street or that street, you would probably spend forever trying to figure out how to get to your destination. But if someone told you where to go and what to do you would have a much easier time achieving your goal.
Ultimately, you want to avoid creating a “dead man’s goal”. If you tell yourself not to do something, you’re most likely going to spend your time thinking about what you’re not supposed to be doing, which will not help you figure out what you are supposed to be doing to achieve your goal. Additionally, it’s also human nature to want to rebel against any form of deprivation.
Instead, focus your energy on setting “to do” goals which will likely lead you to have greater long term success in achieving your own personal goals as well as sustaining healthier lifestyle habits.
Here are some helpful tips in setting a “to do” goal:
Set an intention rather than a resolution or expectation. For example: intention to cultivate a mindful lifestyle
Intention can inspire a goal, though be specific with your goal. For example: “eat 3 cups of vegetables a day” or “read for 5 minutes, 2x a week”
Create small, short-term & achievable goals
Setting small achievable goals enhances motivation and long-term commitment
Don’t “should yourself”, rather change the language to “I would like to do____”
Acknowledge judgments and unhelpful thoughts that show up when trying to reach your goal and gently return your attention to the present moment
Pair your “to do” goal with something you regularly do in your routine. For example: pair washing your face (new goal) with brushing your teeth (regular routine).
Follow your “to do” goal with a reward. This can increase your likelihood of completing your goal. For example, watch your favorite tv show (reward) after washing your face (“to do” goal)
Utilize reminders. For example: hang a sticky note with your “to do goals” somewhere you view daily like your mirror, or set a phone alert to buzz at the time of day you would like to complete your goal
So, in light of already being a quarter of the way through the new year, remember, you can start over any day, any hour and any minute. Be kind and gentle to yourself. Recognize the kind of language you are using towards yourself and how you can cultivate a kinder and healthier relationship with you. Set yourself up for long term success by setting “to do” goals and steering away from “don’t do” or "dead man's" goals.
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