Health & Nutrition

Resolutions Don’t Work: An Unusual New Year’s Guidebook for People Who Think Different

Some people set new year’s resolutions to cut calories or exercise every day, then set off down a straight and steady path toward success with nothing but their self-discipline in tow. Those people don’t have ADHD. Which is not to say we can’t achieve meaningful, positive change; it just means we have to approach it differently.

Making new year's resolutions is one way to celebrate
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The Death of My New Year's Resolutions

Like clockwork, the end of another year signals an avalanche of shoulds, coulds, and desires for change.

“This year will be different; I know I can do it,” I tell myself, sincerely putting forth the effort to sign up for a gym membership, or a Latin dance class, or a yoga retreat. I buy new sneakers, workout gear, and set off into a better tomorrow.

Then it happens: After two sessions, my knees hurt. I'm working late. I forget about dinner. I don’t have enough energy left to lace up my sneakers. I'm frazzled, frantic, and frustrated. Soon it’s clear: a workout isn't happening, and my resolutions are dying.

A man goes to the gym as part of his new year's resolution.
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Change is Hard Work

I want to change. Really, I do! I want to be that person who wakes up early, pulls on bright, shiny sneakers, and arrives at the gym before sunrise.

I want to be the woman on the treadmill, pumping iron, and working up a sweat. I want it intensely, but becoming that person seems impossible.

I say I want to change, but the truth is I want to want it. But I don't want it enough to put in the effort that's required.

You see, I dread consistency. Resolution. Habit. Routine. Those words give me the heebie-jeebies. Ugh! Just the thought of doing the same thing every day... excruciating! I know that's ridiculous. I brush my teeth, take a shower, prepare meals, and drink lots of coffee every day, so it’s possible — just not natural.

It's a fact: Routines are harder for a person with ADHD. Many ADHD traits make new behaviors more difficult to adopt. Change is hard work. Habit-forming change is downright daunting.

An acheivable new year's resolution for people with ADHD is to make the bed every day.
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Keeping Things Simple

When I do make (and keep) a resolution to change, it’s almost always because there are benefits waiting for me on the other side of the uncomfortable effort I'm about to expend.

I quite literally say to myself, “I am willing to overcome (and fight through) the discomfort of doing what comes naturally to receive a benefit that will improve my life.’

Even then, the typical resolutions of exercising, eating healthier, and slimming down are just too big for me. A few years ago, I resolved two things: to make the bed every day and wash the dishes before I go to bed. And you know what? I still do these things religiously — I formed and kept the habit because the stress relief was worth the discomfort.

Here’s how I make my resolutions last all year (without getting bored).

[Free Download: Get Control of Your Life and Schedule]

A person out for a walk, as part of a new year's resolution to be more fit.
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1. Make Small Resolutions You Know You Can Keep

Babies don’t learn to walk in an afternoon. They slowly learn to stand up while clutching the furniture, then practice putting one foot in front of the other, and they do this over and over again until it feels natural.

Sometimes, we benefit by taking it slow, too. It's easier to lose 5 pounds than 50 pounds. 10 minutes of exercise is more realistic than 60. As an ex-dance aerobics and yoga instructor, I’ve seen many people push too hard initially, hate the experience, injure themselves, and never return to class again.

Slow down and enjoy the moment. With ADHD, it's hard to find a balance. I'm all-or-nothing, in-or-out, love-or-hate. If I want a new habit to last, I have to pause and practice moderating my bi-polar energy.

A to do list of three new year's resolutions
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2. Don’t Dream Big; Dream Real

I set unrealistic goals. This tendency seldom works in my favor because, when I don’t achieve my goals, the negative self-talk begins. If I dream too big, I sometimes end up feeling like a failure. Don’t add another check mark to the list of things you tried but couldn’t do. Instead, dream realistically — and enjoy those moments of victory when they arrive.

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3. Don’t Lose Sight of the Big Picture

A bad resolution for me: This year I’m going to lose 30 lbs.

A good resolution: This week, I’m going to do my best to become healthier.

Good things happen when I take a step back and think about why I want to get fit. I might want to go hiking on vacation with my husband or take long family bike rides. At times, I've improved myself for my loved ones. That motivation was incredibly powerful.

New habits aren't so dreadful if I think about the benefits I'll receive. Giving up a chocolate chip cookie habit is a challenge until my blood tests come back with lower cholesterol levels. When I keep my eye on the prize, I can push through the challenges.

A woman with ADHD sits at a table and contemplates her new year's resolutions.
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4. Ditch the Denial

ADHD is not a stop sign; it's a yield sign. Since I've learned how to recognize and acknowledge my individual symptoms, my ability to work through related obstacles has improved. I see my ADHD, and I recognize how it prevents me from moving forward. Denial is counterproductive. ADHD is different for each person. So only you can know how, when, and where your ADHD shows up in your life — and resolve not to let it stop you.

[Reader Tips: Sticking to New Year’s Resolutions]

Two women with ADHD make a new year's resolution to spend more time together.
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5. Recruit a Partner

When I joined a High-Intensity Interval Training class with a friend, we knew it would be a true test of our endurance, both physical and mental. We encouraged each other to attend no matter what. And it worked. We attended that class consistently for years.

When my messy desk is out of control, I ask my organized niece to help me get started. I've also hired a professional organizer to customize a system that works for me. Never be ashamed to ask for help.

A man lifts weights at the gym as part of his new year's resolution.
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6. Game Your Brain

Habits can actually fatigue my ADHD brain. Repeating the same behavior over and over feels like an unfathomable chore. To stick with a regular exercise regime, for example, I had to become an instructor. Knowing that a class full of people was waiting for me was the most powerful motivation. As soon as I stopped teaching, I stopped working out regularly.

Doing something good for myself is rarely motivation enough. To make a new habit stick, I have to find that special something that sparks my soul. And when I can’t find it, I try something new and keep searching until I do.

A man with ADHD photographs the sunrise as part of his new year's resolution.
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7. Follow Your Inspiration

It is easy to drop pounds when there’s a wedding dress or a high school reunion waiting on the other side. In the absence of those big-ticket deadlines, I find I need to tap into my greatest passions and make them my reward for hard work.

Do you enjoy seeing the sunrise? If you love photographing the morning sunrise, then make that your daily exercise. Do you wish you had more time for discovering new music? Make Spotify your reward for (and during) a daily jog.

A woman with ADHD holds a flower, a symbol of her new year's resolution to be hopeful.
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8. Stop Beating Yourself Up

Too often, I listen to the false beliefs of my past: “I'll never finish anything.” “I'll love it; then I'll hate it.” “I know I'll quit soon.” These are inaccurate creations of my psyche. But since I've been hearing these false mental messages for such a long time, I think they're true. Just because I failed once, doesn’t mean I’ll fail every time.

I don't have to believe every thought that passes through my mind. I’m not a slob because I don't hang up my clothes every day. I’m not stupid when I forget to take in the dry cleaning and drive around with clothes in my car for weeks. Every minute is an opportunity to do something different. If I keep believing I can't, then I won't.

ADHD Student: ADHD in High School
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9. Benchmark Your Successes, Not Your Failures

I spend most of the day feeling that I’ll never finish my to-do list. Instead of remembering the times I did achieve my goals, I remember the times I failed. Thinking about a task’s perceived difficulty stops me from even attempting it. Too often, I waste time complaining about how overwhelmed I feel or how hard it is to change. Ultimately, I talk myself out of trying a new challenge. My goal for the New Year: Think about those times when I really, truly wanted something so badly that I made it happen — no matter what. Those successes are my benchmark.

A woman with ADHD reminds herself she is resilient, as part of her new year's resolution.
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10. When the Going Gets Tough, ADHDers Get Tougher

We are not quitters, but anyone with ADHD will tell you that the daily frustration is painful to push through. Emotional crises, worries, and fears at times become overwhelming and make me less tolerant to deal with challenges. To succeed, I know I have to set a goal, face my battles head-on, and be consistent. This means admitting that my goal won’t be achieved easily, but that I'm tough, driven, and resilient enough to push through. I can. And I will.

[Resolved: This Year, No New Year's Resolutions]