Now Is The Time To Make Your New Year's Resolutions Stick

Evidence-based tools for sustaining positive changes.

Posted Dec 14, 2017

1. What do I want?

One of the unsung heroes of failure is ambivalence. We think we want something, but we don’t. We may partially want it, we may want something else represented by what we think we want, and we may not be aware of real ways which we don’t want it. This can happen when we are out of touch with important parts of ourselves. "What do I want?" and "What do I really want?" are two different questions. One of the most valuable lessons from failure—actual and simulated (in the sense of deeply thinking through the implications of decisions we make)—is that failing clarifies what we truly value. Learning can take more time than we'd like. The end of the year always quickens our sense of time running out, and renewal.

New Year's is traditionally a time when people wish to turn over a new leaf, but is notoriously when we may hastily set goals. After a half-hearted attempt, we give up. If this happens we can feel pretty crummy, though not necessarily. It is also a cliché, amusing, and upon reflection, practically what we expected to happen. We can laugh at ourselves, which is sometimes a good thing to do. So, ask yourself how committed you are to making whatever change it is that you are considering in the New Year.

You don’t have to start on January 1 if you aren’t ready, obviously. Every moment is the beginning of a new year. But you can keep that as a loose date to start the change process in earnest. It’s better to pick a later start date and have it work out than rigidly stick to January 1 and not be ready. It's better to succeed over the course of years than fail over the course of months. Be wary of anything which feels like a compulsion, rather than a true desire i.e. if you feel like you have no choice and are forcing yourself to change, you aren't going to be on board with your own decision and may evoke unconscious resistance. If you are self-collaborative, you are more likely to be acting out of genuine desire.

2. Setting the stage

In order to increase your chances of sustaining positive changes, we set the stage for success and identify and reduce sources of failure. You'll need a pen and paper, or an equivalent way of keeping track because keeping it in your head won’t allow you to do what needs to be done. I encourage you to write with pen and paper, and transfer to digital if desired because pen and paper engage us more—leveraging what is called “embodied cognition.” 

3. Start with empowerment and identify your goals

First, we need to define long-term goal(s). Be ambitious, open to possibilities and discovery, and stretch your imagination. While being realistic is important, it is equally important to recognize that we often limit ourselves by being pessimistic or overly conservative in expectations, talking ourselves out of doing what needs to be done before we have even broken ground. You are empowered to make changes, regardless of what has happened in the past. Focus on process goals, making changes over time to build toward long-term sustainable change, rather than sink-or-swim goals, to the extent possible depending on the level of urgency. People are more likely to succeed and feel more empowered rewarding for incremental steps along the way, accepting that setbacks are part of the process and something to learn from, rather than attacking oneself for failing if things aren’t perfect.

4. Catalyze motivation

What we do and how we think about change has a direct impact on the level of motivation. To a significant extent, being conscious and intentional super-charges the process, making the effort worthwhile. Start with a list of the benefits you will gain from making the changes you wish to make. Focus more on concrete benefits rather than vague benefits or motivations based on what you should do (e.g. “I’ll have more energy and stamina during physical activity and enjoy myself more” rather than “I’ll reduce my chances of illnesses in the long-run”). One exception may be that imagining future feelings like regret (e.g. failing to quit smoking and developing an illness) can help motivate people to make changes.

Concrete benefits are better motivators in general, though it’s also important to have longer-term goals on the radar, such as reducing future risks—just not as compelling. Be comprehensive. Include personal benefits, how others will benefit, and anything else you can think of (e.g. feeling good by contributing to the greater good). Keep your list handy for regular review. It may be useful to have a copy in your wallet or purse, so you can take it out if you are faced with temptation or low motivation.

Analyzing your level of motivation can help to pull out effective sources of motivation. The following can be useful: Considering your goal(s), on a scale from 1 to 10 (where 1 is not ready to start at all) and 10 is working steadily toward accomplishing your goal), rate your level of motivation. Now, rather than asking yourself why you are not more motivated (assuming you are not at a 10), ask yourself why you are not less motivated (e.g. if you are at a 6, why are you not at a 4?) and write down the reasons which come to mind. This exercise will pull out even more of the motivators and can be repeated periodically as your work your process of change.

5. Program your unconscious for success

Research shows that conscious thinking can influence our unconscious behaviors in positive and negative ways (see Baumeister et al., 2011 for a review). Mental practice—mental rehearsal or simulation—works only when done realistically, focusing on the details of what actually has to happen. This means it is more effortful, but the effort pays off. Imagine yourself performing your goal, rather than only imagining the goal. Seeing the behavior in your mind's eye, and practicing the behavior or cognitive process (for example, if you are trying to change a mental habit), leads to improved performance and goal attainment. For example, if you want to develop a regular exercise routine, imagine yourself going to the gym for the next several weeks, and write down the reasons why you are doing it. Imagine doing specific actions, such as going to the library and studying, rather than the outcome, such as getting a good grade in a class.

It may be helpful to imagine yourself in the third person, seeing yourself going to the gym and working out, as if you were watching a video. For physical skills such as sports, it may be helpful to imagine yourself doing the action over and over in your mind. We also rehearse things in their dreams when learning a new task, and interfering with sleep can reduce learning—so make sure you get appropriate rest when learning new things. Make sure you visualize and rehearse performing the way you want to perform, and do not mentally practice near-misses or failure.

6. Leverage social power

Surround yourself with people who are aligned with your own goals. Avoid talking about these goals with people who are not on-board because that can sap your motivation. Find out if there are others who share your goals, and work together with them. Groups can provide support and encouragement, and partners can help you stay the course or get back on track if you falter—and can make it more fun to do activities with a friend. Working in a team enhances learning and performance (McEwan et al., 2017).

Online groups can be amazingly effective, for example writing groups with defined goals (number of words) and accountability. Talk with people close to you, consider starting a group if you can’t find a suitable one, and identify specific people who you can work with for motivation and to help with stumbling blocks. It may help to let people know what you plan to do and why, both so they can help you stick with your goals, and also to make a public commitment which can also help to motivate (but can backfire with embarrassment if done prematurely).

7. Cultivate a flexible and positive position toward change

Approach yourself with gentleness and gratitude. Name three things you are thankful for from yourself. You may find it helpful to cultivate self-compassion if you find you have difficulty adopting a constructive stance with yourself. If you tend to blame yourself, try to notice when you are doing that and become curious about what is happening and if there is anything new to learn from both the experience of self-blaming as well as whatever it is you may be spinning about. Compassion and blame don’t co-exist well, and forgiveness is easier when blame is less potent. Be generous with yourself, and appreciate your generosity with gratitude toward yourself. Build up your resilience by encouraging cognitive flexibility, using social supports, being realistically optimistic, practicing good overall self-care, and relying on sources of authenticity and meaning and spiritual and religious resources (as applicable).

8. Plan and execute

Once you have decided you are ready and have clarified your goal or goals, it’s time to start planning. Chance favors the prepared mind, and New Year’s resolutions are no exception. Set long-term goal and a timeline. Figure out ahead of time what targets for success are and periodically assess where you are in relation to those sub-goals. If you are heading in the right direction and meeting your marks, that’s great. If not, course-correct. Don’t be afraid to get help if you feel stuck. When we are stuck, we get anxious. Anxiety is good, but when we get too anxious, we may make bad decisions.

Get detailed. Use “implementation intention." Rather than make vague goals without a clear path or plan, develop specific behavioral plans. Use “if-then” contingencies to maximize readiness e.g. if someone offers me a cigarette, then I will tell them I am trying to quit and ask for their help. Spell out the first three steps needed for each subsidiary goal, and work toward implementing those steps. Keep the end goal in mind, and do the work required to get there. If a sub-goal has more than three steps, break it down into smaller goals. Be organized.

Imagining emotional outcomes can help you perform better. Think about emotional outcomes, imagining how you will feel if you do not stick to your plan. Research shows that imagining how your future self will feel, e.g. regret, helps prevent unwanted behavior. Bolstering self-esteem after a failure has been shown to worsen performance, as has making excuses. It is possible to be focused on learning without being harsh.

Make your plans, but stay focused on doing the process well, and let the outcome flow from excellence in process. If you need to revise your goals and timeline, do that with confidence. It’s better to revise and succeed than rigidly stick with goals and fail.

9. Establish a regular practice of assessment and revision

Develop new habits. Set aside at least 10 minutes each morning and evening to review goals, intentions, and plans. Don't take a few minutes to wake up. Start with the idea in mind... then wake up. Keep yourself in the attitude of gratitude and self-reciprocity with generosity. When you move away from that, gently bring yourself back. Mindfulness meditation may be useful to help with this gentle return to what is important. Focus on immediate steps while keeping your eye on the longer-term prize. Success flows from consistent, but not constant, effort. Make sure you give yourself time for rest and recuperation, be playful with yourself, and enjoy the process rather than viewing it as an unpleasant chore.

Review, assess and re-orient at least on a weekly basis, and as necessary. Check in with a partner on at least a monthly basis. If you are using a group or a regular buddy, schedule regular check-ins. Periodically write down reflections about and lessons learned both in terms of your defined goals, as well as about your overarching way of approaching achieving goals. You may find it helpful to journal. As always, practice self-compassion if you tend to be harsh with yourself, and accept blaming while intending to shift away from it, and cultivate curiosity.

10. Have a robust relapse prevention and recovery plan

Old habits may linger and may remain hidden and ready to re-active if circumstances permit. For example, even someone sober for decades may relapse with alcohol in the face of a major life stressor in the absence of a contingency plan for that eventuality (and sometimes even with a plan). This is because habits get "hard-wired" deep in a part of the brain called the striatum as conditioned responses, and when we learn new patterns they can be learned on top of the old patterns, without replacing them (Graybiel & Grafton, 2015).

Many of these habits are stored as "motor" behaviors, meaning that if they get activated, they can simply play out as behaviors which "brainjack" higher centers. Changing underlying patterns takes persistence and patience over a longer span of time than we'd sometimes like, and requires establishing sturdy new skill sets and contingencies on top of old, entrenched patterns which may remain dormant, but capable of re-awakening. That is why it is crucial to have a Plan B (...Plan X) to deal with situations which come out of left field, activate survival mode, and threaten your whole longer-term plan. That is why it is important to have a compassionate stance, so that you can recover if you stumble rather than throwing fuel on the fire. Disappointment is powerful, but bearable and sometimes informative when the dust smoke clears.

Finally, have a success plan. Success is amazing and meant to be appreciated. Success can have its hazards, too. Enjoy it, and use it well. Happy New Year.

References

Baumeister RF, Masicampo EJ & Vohs KD. (2011). Do conscious thoughts cause behaviors? Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 62:331-361, January.

Graybiel AM & Grafton ST. (2015). The striatum: Where skills and habits meet. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology. 2015;7:a021691.

McEwan D, Ruissen GR, Eys MA, Zumbo BD, Beauchamp MR (2017) The Effectiveness of Teamwork Training on Teamwork Behaviors and Team Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Controlled Interventions. PLoS ONE 12(1): e0169604. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0169604