Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

New Year's Resolutions in a Leap Year: One Day Down and still 365 to Go!

Tips to help you keep your New Year's resolutions

The new year has arrived. If this year held the promise of a new intention (or an old one revisited), how's it going? Did your intention become action today?

I'm in no place to judge anyone on the successful pursuit of a New Year's resolution on the first day of the new year. My resolution was to get out and run, something my body (and my soul) desperately needs. The run didn't happen today. Ok, so it was -29 with the windchill, but that's really only an excuse. I've even got Gore-tex covered, studded running shoes for icy roads, and I'm a dog musher  - I love the cold. I simply didn't do what I intended to do. I'm sure I'm not alone

Why is it that our resolutions so often fail?
There are a number of things that have to happen to ensure success. I'll focus on three main ideas here.

1. Meaning and Manageability
The personal projects in our lives live in a dynamic balance between meaning and manageability. Successful projects need to be personally meaningful to motivate us to proceed, yet manageable enough to know what it is we need to actually do to proceed successfully. Both the meaning and manageability aspects of our projects can lead to problems with our New Year's resolutions.

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Meaning - Although we might expect that a New Year's resolution is very meaningful to us (that's why we make the intention, right?), not all are. Our lofty goals to "get fit this year" or "lose 40 pounds" may well be falsely internalized goals based on what we think others expect of us. To the extent that we don't really own the goal, it's unlikely we'll actually do anything about it. It's not really meaningful to us, and we're not really motivated to act. Knowing whether you actually "own" the goal is a good place to start as you ponder your resolutions and the year ahead.

Manageability - Let's say your fitness or weight-loss goal is personally meaningful. You are motivated for change. Success then depends on how you manage this project. Can you identify the specific schedulable act that is required? Can you move from a meaningful goal intention to an implementation intention?  More specifically, are you stating your intentions as "in situation X, I will do behavior Y to achieve goal Z"? If you're not moving from the broad goal intention of the New Year's resolution to a more specific implementation intention, you're not as likely to be successful.

2. Emotions and irrational thoughts
Meaning and manageability are necessary but not sufficient. I may have a very meaningful resolution that I know how to implement (hey, just get out there and run, right?), but I still may fail. The big issue here is one of self-regulation. I need to manage my emotional state and many of my irrational thoughts to make this a success.

Emotion - Thinking of the new year and your resolution for change a few days ago felt good. Optimistically, we looked forward to this new year and a new start. The thing is, we have to accept that it won't feel good once we move from goal intention to action. Denying ourselves a second serving as we begin our new approach to eating and weight loss, or slipping out the door for an early morning run as we begin our new fitness program simply won't feel good. But, don't give in to feel good! It's easy to focus on our feelings and work to feel better now at the expense of the long-term goal. Don't. Expect to feel lousy when you begin and suck it up. If you can move past this initial discomfort and get started, your attitude will follow your behavior.

Irrational thoughts  - Many of us believe (at least implicitly or tacitly) that our motivational state must match the intention at hand. You might recognize this with, "I'll feel more like it tomorrow." Perhaps this is true, but it's unlikely. What we do know from a variety of research is that once we make progress on a goal (even a little), we feel better and more motivated. So, don't wait until you feel like it, just get started.

3. Setbacks, mindfulness and a commitment to start again
Finally, expect setbacks. In fact, expect to feel like a failure at times. Change is not easy, and New Year's resolutions seem to be around some of the most negative and difficult goals in our lives.

Be kind with yourself, yet also be relentlessly mindful, firmly bringing your attention back to your goal and your focus to the schedulable act at hand.

"Just getting started" isn't a one-time effort. You may "just get started" a dozen times a day in the service of your intended resolution. To the extent you do, you'll soon find that a habit develops, a new way of living takes shape, and the new you that you envisioned in the possible self that was guiding your New Year's resolution becomes a reality.

I'll be on the road tomorrow morning (the temperature may even moderate a bit).

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.

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