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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Watson

Resolutions vs. Intentions (+ Change, Habit Energy & Resistance)

So, it's January 22nd...just over three weeks into the New Year. How many of us made a New Year's Resolution? What's the most common one? Lose weight! So, we hit the gym on January 2nd.


We do it again on the 3rd and the 4th, maybe even the 5th. On the 6th we oversleep.. Whoops. That's OK, we'll hit the gym after work instead. Darn, the end of day work meeting runs late and we don't have time to hit the gym. That's OK, we'll get up tomorrow and do a harder workout to make up for missing today.

And so it goes for a few more weeks until we sleep in one too many times and then miss one too many morning or afternoon workouts because it isn't convenient or we're just too tired after a long day at work. And our New Year's Resolution to lose the weight dies out before it really even gets started.


There are some of us who make a resolution and keep it, but not nearly as many as you might think. According to Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Coach Dr. Loree Johnson*: "New Year’s resolutions have become synonymous with broken goals, missed opportunities, and frustration. Around 8% of people make their New Year’s resolutions stick, and studies have shown that most resolutions are broken within the first few weeks."

Why don't our resolutions stick?

"Resolution" is defined as "a firm decision to do or not to do something; the quality of being determined or resolute." According to Educational Psychologist Dr. Evelyn Bilias**: "Resolutions require big and often abrupt changes to your behavior and/or lifestyle choices. And that is exactly why they fizzle out shortly after the New Year."

So, what do we do? We want to make changes in our lives. We know we need to do it. Whether it's lose the weight, get out of debt, make a career change, spend more time with our families and less time at the office...if we don't make a resolution, then how do we make the changes?

By setting our intentions.

Intention is defined as "a thing intended; an aim or plan." Unlike a resolution and it's rather black and white Yoda-like "Do or Not Do; There is No Try" mindset, with an intention we are gentle with ourselves by giving ourselves permission to try. And to fail. To pick ourselves up and try again. To allow for life to get in the way sometimes. To this working? To say, "Perhaps I need to look at my plan again and make some adjustments." Instead of saying, I WILL go to the gym everyday this week!" (resolution) we say, "I'm planning to get to the gym 3 times this week as my schedule and energy allow. We'll see how that works this week and then look at next week." (intention)

Dr. Bilias describes intentions as "small changes in practices or behavior that result from a dedicated awareness to change. Intentions are small vows for increasing awareness toward the areas of your life that warrant more attention...[They] require a quiet commitment to your growth and wellness. Intentions involve realigning first your heart and then your efforts towards the things you feel will help you grow as a person, professional, parent, significant other, etc. They begin in and with the heart and that is what makes them so powerful. They do not begin in the mind. They are your heart’s nudge for a better, more adjusted you."

Setting our intentions sounds amazing, right? Much better than the frustration and failure associated with broken resolutions.

I'm all for it!


(Why is there always a "but"?)

Now we get to the part where we have to deal with making the actual change, even small changes, which seem like they should be easy...

Habit energy and resistance to change.

Most of us have strong habit energy. That stuff we do all of the time without even thinking about it.

Perhaps our intention is to save money for a vacation we're taking this summer. OK, that's doable, right? So, how can we do that? Well, we'll plan to go to Starbucks a little less often. We don't need to spend $7.70 EVERYDAY on our Grande Skinny Caramel Macchiato and a chocolate croissant. That's $38.50 a week! We can set aside that money that we would have been spending on fattening drinks and pastries we don't need anyway! We'll eat a healthy breakfast at home!

Great. Done.

Day 1: Oatmeal and tea at home. So far, so good.

Day 2: Plain cheerios, banana and skim milk. Doing great!

Day 3: More oatmeal. This is getting boring. I miss my Macchiato and croissant.

Then our sneaky Inner Habit Energy kicks in on Day 4. We're driving our car to work and suddenly without even thinking about it we're in the Starbucks drive thru line ordering our Macchiato and chocolate croissant. Whoops! Ok, try again tomorrow. And tomorrow, despite our best intentions, good old Inner Habit Energy kicks in again and starts pulling us toward the drive thru line.

Then our Inner Resistance joins the party and like a loud, mad 5 year-old whose Mom just said "no" to a having a treat, says loudly in our heads, "But I ALWAYS have a Grande Skinny Caramel Macchiato and a chocolate croissant on the way to work! I WANT my Macchiato and croissant NOW! I'm NOT giving up my Macchiato and croissant!!"

Habit energy and resistance can make keeping even the gentlest of intentions difficult.

But not impossible.

Breaking old habits and forming new ones...take time. And patience. And a recognition that you aren't going to be perfect.

James Clear, author of the New York Times best selling book Atomic Habits, writes:

Phillippa Lally is a health psychology researcher at University College London. In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Lally and her research team decided to figure out just how long it actually takes to form a habit.

On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In Lally's study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.

In other words, if you want to set your expectations appropriately, the truth is that it will probably take you anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new behavior into your life — not 21 days.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if you mess up every now and then. Building better habits is not an all-or-nothing process.

I'm finding myself once again at the crossroads of Intention vs. Habit Energy/Resistance.

My intention, like the majority of us, is to lose weight. Not for vanity sake (although I'd be totally lying if I said there wasn't vanity involved!), but for my health. I've struggled with my weight and an eating disorder for much of my adult life. This isn't news. I've written about it before. And last year I was supposed to drop a significant amount of weight.

Then my dad got really sick. And passed away.

Between grief and 7 months of binge eating because of grief, now I'm back at a weight (while not my heaviest) that is...well, let's just say that Diabetes runs in my family and I'm well on my way to becoming a serious diabetic if I don't get the pounds off.

Funnily enough, as I was struggling at the beginning of the year with setting my intention to live a healthier life and lose weight, the Universe stepped in to help me out. I was invited to join a weight loss study offered by the Diabetes and Weight Loss Center of one of our local hospitals. So two days ago I went for orientation (after I had taken myself out for lunch, of course...)

As I sit there listening to the study Facilitator give us the information about the ins and outs of the study (food journal, calorie counting, wearing an activity tracker everyday, exercise, follow up visits to check in, etc.), my Inner Habit Energy starts whining about not being to go out to lunch anymore. And my Inner Resistance to Change chimes in with a firm, "This is going to SUCK. We should NOT do this."

Inner Resistance keeps talking, "You know that being fat, complacent and just doing what you've always done is so much EASIER than losing the weight. Calorie counting? YUCK! All of that exercise...ugh! You DON'T want to do this. Don't sign those forms. Just leave. The Facilitator says that if this doesn't sound like it's for you that you don't have to sign up. C'mon just go! We don't need this!"

My Inner Resistance to Change almost convinces me to leave without signing up.

She makes some good points. I really don't want to do this.

But I know I have to.

So, I tell my Inner Resistance and Inner Habit Energy to put on their Big Girl Panties because we're doing this.

I sign the forms.

As I'm driving home, it occurs to me that what I've just done feels like a "resolution" and what if I don't lose the weight? What if I give in to Habit Energy and Resistance (who is still stomping her feet around my brain and having a little temper tantrum.) And later, as I'm talking with my mom about the study orientation, I realize that I can set very gentle intentions and still participate in this study:

I'm not setting any kind of number goal. No "I will lose 30 pounds by the end of the year." I will simply participate to the best of my ability and try my hardest to make healthier food and activity choices.

That seems gentle and reasonable, doesn't it?

Hopefully after 66 days my Inner Habit Energy will be more habituated to healthier food and going to the gym 3 or 4 times a week than to going out for lunch and laying on the couch.

Hopefully after 66 days my Inner Resistance to Change (card pictured above) will no longer be throwing a hissy fit about missing out on desserts and restaurant lunches. (As part of my intention for 2020, one of my next steps is to sit down with my Inner Resistance card to have a conversation with her and ask her to step back a bit.)

Hopefully I will be gentle with myself, willing to evaluate my participation and how I'm feeling so I can make adjustments to my plan/my intention as needed, and to accept now that there are going to be times this year when I will not make the best choices and recognize that everyday is a new opportunity to try again.

We've got on our Big Girl Panties.

Time to head into 2020.


Did you make a resolution for 2020? How's it going so far? Are you going to be one of the 8% who stick with it? Or perhaps you set your intentions for the are you feeling? Is 2020 going to be the year that you make the changes you want to make? Please be gentle with yourself wherever you are in your process.


*from her article: Set Intentions, Not Resolutions: How to Keep the Promises You Make to Yourself with Compassion Throughout the New Year (article published on Thrive Global website 12.12.19)

** from her article: Nix the Resolutions, Channel the Intentions!: Accessing Your Deeper Aspirations for 2020 (article published on Thrive Global website 12.31.19)


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