- New Year’s resolutions are goals, and motivation psychology shows that goals alone tend not to work well.
- Deliberative goals are thwarted by the more impulsive part of your brain, which implements automatic and habitual behaviors.
- To give them a better chance, you can treat goals as little programs, fostering new automatic behaviors.
- Goals need to be specific statements, at best formulated in an if-then format: which action trigger should lead to which specific action.
A simple search of Psychology Today shows dozens of posts about New Year’s resolutions. Some of them will tell you that resolutions do not work and lay out a number of reasons (for example, this one, this one, this one, and this one). The rest will give you useful advice on how to try to make them work (this one or this one), while admitting that it will be hard.
The psychology behind this pessimistic view is not difficult to understand. New Year’s resolutions are essentially goals: statements of desirable objectives that you want to accomplish. But, as hundreds of publications in motivation psychology show, goals do not work very well. Indeed, many, if not most, goals are never actually put into practice.
And why should they be? Goals come from the more rational, long-term-oriented part of your brain. Say you want to lose a few pounds, or be nicer to people, or cut down on social media. You are not struggling to see why you want to change. The problem is the more impulsive, short-term-oriented part of your brain, the one that sustains your habits and takes over most of your day-to-day actions. Your brain is very good at automatizing behavior, freeing resources for other things. But, when those automatic behaviors conflict with your long-term goals, you struggle.
When you state a New Year’s resolution, or any long-term goal, you are (metaphorically) talking to the wrong part of your brain. And using the wrong language. “I want to lose weight” and “I want to be nicer to other people” are not written in terms your habits and impulses understand. You will state those goals, and one day later you will reach for the muffin and snap at your spouse.
Should you just discard New Year’s resolutions as hopeless? Of course not. Being conscious of your goals is the beginning of change, and any opportunity that motivates you to make them explicit is a chance, be it the New Year, the Summer Solstice, or the first day of the rest of your life.
You just need to be smarter about it.
First, let’s borrow a page from management. People in that field have long known that, to be of any use, goals need to be formulated in a specific way, which follows the acronym S.M.A.R.T. They have to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Related. Some of those are obvious when we speak about our personal goals.
When you formulate a goal or resolution, it has to matter to you (be Relevant), and it has to be doable and realistic (Achievable). Don’t vow to become a fashion model, don’t set goals because of others’ expectations, and do not overburden yourself with a dozen goals!
Some of the other letters in the acronym are less obvious. Measurable means that you should be able to tell whether there is progress, but does not mean obsessing over the results on a scale. A simple “X” on your diary or calendar every day you resist temptation, vs. an “O” when you do not, will do.
Time-Related means being clear about the time frame of what you want to achieve. For personal goals, however, it might make little sense to obsess over measurements. Instead of vowing to lose ten pounds by June 1st, set yourself fixed reviewing times to check on progress. Turn your New Year’s resolutions into a first-of-the-month review. Rather than abandoning your goal because it didn’t work so well for a month, use the review time to renew it and step up your efforts.
For your SMART Resolutions, the most important letter is “S.” Be Specific. Losing weight or being nicer to people are not specific enough. How exactly are you going to do that? “I will skip lunch on Mondays” or “I will eat salad for dinner on Fridays” are specific. When you think about it, you will find that you have little difficulty translating your goals and resolutions into specific action plans because this is the deliberative part of your brain speaking. And that is closer to the language of the impulsive part.
The impulsive part of your brain does not speak in statements, though, it speaks in conditionals. If I see this, I will do that. Your automatic behaviors are like little computer programs which recognize a situation and run a few commands as a consequence. If you have a burger, you order fries with it. If you feel anger, you snap. If you come home, you drop on the couch and go to social media on your smartphone. Rather than fighting that part of your brain and being endlessly frustrated when you lose, a good way to make goals work is to hijack it and make it work for you. You can do it by setting “action triggers” or by using “implementation intentions,” a simple but (surprisingly) powerful technique developed by German psychologists Peter Gollwitzer and Anja Achtziger.
It goes like this: You need to send the impulsive part of your brain a little “if-then” program. If I eat a burger, I order a salad with it. If I feel myself get angry, I change the topic (raise it later, when you are calm). If I drop on the couch in the evening, I grab a book and read a chapter. The details are up to you. You just need to think of specific triggers that you will recognize, and specific actions to follow them up. Oh, and this is going to sound silly, but remember you are sending a message to an impulsive, even childish part of your brain: write the whole “if-then” statement down a few times, and do that every day until it starts to take.
Speaking about triggers, while you are thinking which ones work for you, it might be a good chance to engage in a bit of choice architecture. Which are the triggers that set up your unwanted behaviors? You could leave your smartphone in a different room in the evening and have a book prominently by the couch instead. Maybe you should simply stop buying cookies (hint: never shop while hungry), and have a plate of cherry tomatoes on the counter for when you want a snack. Rather than being tough on yourself, make it a little easier for you to achieve your goals.
Achtziger, A., & Gollwitzer, P.M. (2018), Motivation and volition in the course of action, in: Motivation and Action, 3rd edition, J. Heckhausen and H. Heckhausen, 485-527. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Verlag.
Achtziger, A., Bayer, U. C., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2012), Committing oneself to implementation intentions: Attention and memory effects for selected situational cues. Motivation and Emotion, 36, 287–300.
Doran, G. T. (1981), There's a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management's goals and objectives, Management Review 70(11), 35–36.