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This question originally appeared on Quora. Answer by Nicole Gravagna, PhD in Neuroscience.

New Year’s Resolutions are right around the corner. You know what you want to change about your life. Maybe you want to follow a healthier diet or get more exercise. Maybe you want to find a partner in life or spend more quality time with the one you already married. Maybe you want a better paying job or one that makes you feel like you aren’t just working to fill someone else’s coffers. Whatever it is, I bet you can name it right now.

Go ahead. Say it to yourself. I want...

Now, you might be preparing to shift around your schedule to get this wish granted. Make more time for family, right? Maybe it’s not a shift of time, but a shift of money. Save more?

I’ll tell you what. If you think that shifting time or money is going to change your life, you are kidding yourself. A paltry 8% of people will make their New Year's desires into reality. Why do we suck at this? Why is it so hard to make a conscious change?

Here’s the spit-on-your-neck-and-steal-your-wallet truth; you have exactly what you want.

The itchy, hot, uncomfortable feeling of desire aside, your life is a reflection of what you want. Unfortunately, life is complicated, so getting what you want might also mean getting what you don’t want as an unintended consequence.

Here’s an example of the unintended consequences that keep you from keeping your resolutions.

The problem:

You feel soft and uncomfortable in your skin now that you’ve put on a little weight and your clothes fit a bit too tight.

The solution:

You make a pact with yourself to improve your fitness so you can feel better in your body.

Unintended consequence:

You have to put on exercise clothes (uncomfortable and revealing) and go to a gym (awkward since you don’t know anyone there) and do exercises (hot, sweaty, and gross, not to mention physically painful when you really get going) so that you can be healthier.


To get what you want (comfort in your body) you have to do the thing you decided you didn’t want (discomfort in your body and mind).

When you told yourself you wanted to get fit as a New Year's Resolution, you really meant that you want to be comfortable in your body. People who partake in fitness activities actually spend more time feeling intensely uncomfortable than people who avoid those kinds of things. Although you said you wanted to be fit, you actually meant that you wanted to be comfortable, and frankly, you already are as comfortable as you can be. You get exactly what you want. Comfort.

To make significant changes in your life, you are going to have to get to the bottom of what you really mean when you say you want to get fit, spend more time with your family, or get a better job. What do those things mean to you?

Here’s a step by step plan to go about decoding your desires so you can make a successful change in your life.

  1. Write down or say out loud what you want to change about your life.
  2. Then, write down or say out loud what it means for you to have that part of your life changed. In the example above, ask what does fitness mean to you?
  3. Next, think about your relationship with that meaning. In the previous example, you’d think about your relationship with comfort since that was the underlying meaning of fitness.
  4. Ask yourself if you are willing to change your relationship to that underlying meaning. Are you willing to change your relationship to comfort? The answer might be no.
  5. Let yourself make arguments. When you find yourself rationalizing, waving your hands, and defending your past choices, you are stepping into the kind of fertile ground that allows you to make a change. Go ahead. Keep trying to talk yourself out of it. Denial is a legitimate step in the process.
  6. Go ahead and feel the old sorrows, disappointments, and anger that will probably be attached to those arguments. You might find yourself recalling ancient pain from high school gym class incident. Let it happen. Feel it. As soon as you feel through it, that old BS can dissolve forever.
  7. This whole process can take an hour or a few weeks. Permanent change can take some time. Be patient and keep revisiting the arguments and feelings that your mind throws at you to see how they are progressing. Tell your mind 'good job’ each time it reveals a new feeling or argument. Listen to it like you listen to a child telling about a nightmare - with compassion and attention, but the awareness that the nightmare is an illusion of danger, not real danger.
  8. Periodically, repeat the first 4 steps. What do you want to change, what does that mean to you, what is your relationship with the meaning, and most importantly are you willing to change your relationship with the meaning?
  9. When your answer to are you willing to change your relationship with the meaning of this desired life change is a thoughtful and resounding yes, then you will be able to make the change permanently without a lot of the backsliding that people generally associate with big life changes.

Change is hard for those who don’t respect the fundamental steps involved. There will be denial. That’s ok. There will be old feelings that come up out of nowhere. That’s great progress! There will be complicated underlying meanings that line the foundation of your desired change. Totally normal. As soon as you come to accept the process, change becomes just another thing you do. Gracefully.

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