Ah, the new year. We all think it – “new year, new me!”. We can be so eager to identify one or more resolutions. We always say, “this year is going to be different,” and we start off with a strong motivation until that dreaded crash about three weeks into January.

Some of the most popular resolutions include: exercising more, losing weight, getting organized, living life to the fullest or feeling happy, mastering a new hobby, budgeting, quitting smoking, traveling more, and spending more time with friends and family. While these are all admirable goals in and of themselves, the problem is that they are broad, vague, and unrealistic. For instance, exactly how does one plan to lose weight? Is it realistic to commit to going to the gym every day while having a strict low-carb diet? No. How does someone plan to budget? Does this mean paying for only necessities, and if so, what defines a necessity? Is it fair to say no to a night out with friends because that could break the goal?

The most important factor in making and keeping a resolution is to be realistic, balanced, and fair. No, someone will not lose three dress sizes in one month. No, they will not go to the gym every day. Yes, they will give in to temptation -- they will eat that Boston cream donut in the break room at work. Yes, they will end up buying something “on impulse” simply because they want it.

Now let’s change the “they” in the above paragraphs to “I.” Go back and read the paragraphs again. Reflect on what these sentences mean to you, if anything, when in the first-person.

Do they sound realistic, balanced, and fair? No.

In other words… Be nice to yourself. You are not a failure for a slip-up. You’re human, with your ups and downs, just like everyone else. Imperfection is okay. No one – absolutely no one – is motivated 100% of the time. Even Olympians struggle to maintain motivation. If you'd like additional resources of New Years Resolutions, click here.

Motivation Operates in Cycles

It is normal to experience the highs and lows of motivation. Instead of thinking, “why can’t I be motivated all of the time?” consider that some motivation is far better than none. That episode of motivation, no matter how fleeting it may seem, can still help you achieve your goals. Embrace it.

I used to struggle with not being able to uphold my motivation for long periods. I became frustrated at myself when I was doing something unproductive. Then I realized that the “something unproductive” was the very thing I needed to do to help recharge my emotional battery – to get me to feel inspired to get back on track with my goal.

Motivation operates in cycles, designed with peaks and troughs. It is not linear. Once you can begin to picture those highs and lows of motivation, moving away from the mentality that it is a straight-line to success, you work toward achievement of your goal (or you can at least readjust the goal to be a realistic one!).

The Phases of Motivation

The New Year before my wedding in October, much like so many other brides, I made it one of my resolutions to look a certain way for my wedding. I was determined to lose some of that weight I gained from too many snacks during all-nighters writing papers in graduate school.

I wanted to be reasonable with myself. I knew there was no way I was going to fit into a certain dress size, but I did know I could at least buy a dress in my real size and get it brought in if I lost weight. So, I did that.

I also downloaded Noom, a weight loss app with skills from cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Daily, Noom drops short tips and suggestions to aid someone as they work toward weight loss. Early in the program, they introduced me to the Motivation Model, which changed my mindset. I began to be much more patient, loving, and kindhearted toward myself, addressing those nagging negative beliefs that were chewing away at me.

Let us use an example. Say you want to save 10% of your paycheck going forward. This is an illustration of what your motivation will look like throughout the journey:

No photo description available.
Photo credit: Noom’s Facebook page.

As you can see, the Motivation Model has peaks and troughs; it is not straight nor linear.

The following names of each phase come from the model by Noom. However, keep in mind it applies to all reasons for motivation, not only weight loss. It is a universal model, and I am certain there are other products that have the same model but simply with different names.

Phase 1: The Hype

This is the most exciting phase. This is the phase where you think, “I got this! I am going to achieve these resolutions!” and jump in with a complete, undeniable motivation. This is where you can feel caught in the momentum, determined that their first time saving 10% of your paycheck will be the norm going forward.

This is where you will experience the honeymoon – when motivation is at its most extreme. This is when we have that unstoppable, almost grandiose sense of motivation. We are in a blissful ignorance. We think we need to feel that motivated all the time.

Phase 2: The Plummet

This is the painful, dreaded crash that happens after the honeymoon. This is the part of the cycle where people have a bump in the road, thinking they are a failure, and may fall into an old habit. This is the part where we feel extremely judgmental toward ourselves, thinking we will never be able to get back on track with our resolutions.

This is the part where you did not save 10% of your paycheck. You had a draining day. The boss was hard on you, you got in an argument with your spouse, your child had a temper tantrum. To cope, you went online-shopping and bought some things you wanted but did not need.

You may think the following:
“This sucks. This is way harder than I thought it’d be.”
“Maybe I can’t do this.”

This is all normal! This is okay! It is all part of the journey. Simply acknowledge you had a slip up and continue along.

Trough 1: The Lapse

This is the most difficult part. This is where you will feel at your lowest in your progress with your resolutions. This is where you are most likely to give up, state you will never get better, give in to those negative core beliefs, and just go back to how you used to be.

“This is way harder than I thought it’d be” degenerates into “this is impossible.”
“Maybe I can’t do this” becomes “I won’t do this. I give up.”

This is the time when clients tell their therapists they have given up on their resolutions and goals. They are convinced things cannot get better.

But this phase can and will pass. Just believe in yourself!

To get through this phase, do something. Do something that will help you feel one step closer to your resolutions and goals, even if it is very minimal. If this feels like too much, use a visualization meditation to imagine you have achieved your goal. Visualization can be a powerful psychological trick to boost confidence.

Also, have some gratitude for The Lapse. Sure, it does not feel good being there, but it is not a crisis. It is an opportunity to be introspective, to dive into yourself to figure out what is effective for you when you are not doing well, so you can prepare to do better in the future. It is the time for wisdom.

It gets better.

Phase 3: The Slips and Surges

Phase 3 is the steadier phase, where going at a rabbit’s pace slows down to that of a turtle. You know the saying, “slow and steady wins the race.” In this phase, the highs and lows are easier to tackle. The highs are no longer mountainous like the honeymoon, and the lows are no longer like a great ravine. You will still feel those highs and lows, and yes, they are permanent. But that is exactly to be expected. It is normal.

You will have some days that are better than others. Perhaps one day, your boss says you did an amazing job leading the team project. Maybe that ongoing argument with your spouse is turning more so into manageable disagreements. Maybe your child is learning to use coping skills rather than have meltdowns.

There will be the bad days too, of course. You’re late for work because you got a flat tire – and it is the same day as an important business meeting. Maybe you get a phone call from your child’s teacher because he is having problems in math. Perhaps after weeks of you and your spouse working hard on effective communication, an argument happens again.

This is how motivation operates. It reflects the highs and lows of life – all the good and the bad, the celebrations and the tribulations, the gains and losses.

Once you accept that the slips and surges will happen, you can be mindful. You can think to yourself:

“Today I really will only spend my money on what I need.”
“Honestly, today really was a hard day. It’s okay if I indulge a little bit. But tomorrow I will be back on track.”

And it will also allow you to be more freeing and forgiving toward yourself… “You know, it really is okay if I go out with my friends on Fridays. It’s not going to ruin my goal if I let myself have some fun. If anything, it will probably motivate me to continue my journey.”


1. Our motivation operates in cycles. We will have highs and lows.
2. Be fair to yourself. Be mindful; reflect on what you can learn during the highs and lows. Know they will all pass.
3. When in a low, do one small thing rather than nothing at all.

- Valerie Smith, LMSW, CFTG

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