Who Am I?

Exploring your identity.

The Role of Identity in Making New Year's Resolutions

Who Do You Want to Be?

Regardless of what type of New Year’s resolutions you are making to change particular habits (e.g., working smarter rather than harder, being more thoughtful of others, exercising more), consider the importance of also imagining yourself in the future, i.e., either being productive or lazy, kinder or inconsiderate, and fit or out of shape.

Why would thinking about who we want to be, and do not want to be, help us stick to our New Year’s Resolutions, particularly if we think about ourselves as lazy, inconsiderate, or out of shape? Because when we contemplate possible selves, that is, who we hope to become in the future and who it is we fear becoming, we are more likely to engage in behaviors that help us become who we hope to be and avoid becoming who we fear.

Consider the following study. Researchers assigned young adults who exercised infrequently to one of three groups: one in which participants imagined themselves in the future as healthy and regular exercisers, a second in which participants imagined themselves in the future as unhealthy and inactive individuals, and a control group in which participants completed a measure of their physical activity.

Then the researchers asked the participants to report their exercise four weeks later, and eight weeks later. Participants who imagined themselves in the future as healthy and regular exercisers or as unhealthy and inactive individuals reported greater levels of exercise – suggesting that both hoped-for and feared possible selves motivate us to engage in behaviors that do indeed help us become our hoped-for possible self or avoid becoming our feared possible self.

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The benefits of imagining our future selves also apply to our careers. The more clearly we view our future career selves, the more likely we are to engage in proactive behaviors that increase the likelihood of success at work, such as improving our skills, networking, and planning future career goals.

So having a clear image of our hoped-for and feared possible selves will spur us to act, especially when we feel that we just don’t have the energy to complete another training seminar, catch up with the friend we have been meaning to call, or work out when we would rather curl up with a good book.

Speaking of a good book, I recommend highly Dr. Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct, which discusses the role of identity in willpower. For example, instead of viewing willpower as a moral issue, in which we view acts of self-control as punishment and acts of self-indulgence as a reward, we might consider viewing willpower as an identity issue, in which we view acts of self-control as behaviors that will help us meet our goals. You can read Dr. McGonigal’s blog here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-science-willpower

So when making New Year’s resolutions, spend some time considering not just how to change specific behaviors, but how engaging in these behaviors make your possible selves more readily within your grasp and help you become the person you want to be – whether it be more productive, kinder, or in better shape.

References

Murru, E. C., & Ginis, K. A. M. (2010). Imagining the possibilities: The effects of a possible selves  intervention on self-regulatory efficacy and exercise behavior. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 32, 537-554.

Strauss, K., Griffin, M. A., & Parker, S. K. (2012). Future work selves: How salient hoped-for identities motivate proactive career behaviors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(3), 580-598.

 

Kristine Anthis, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Southern Connecticut State University.

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