The Only New Year's Resolution You'll Ever Need

Implementation intentions can make your world go round.

Posted Jan 01, 2019

geralt
Happy New Year
Source: geralt

New Year's resolutions are a tricky business.  They are obligations we put on our future selves to behave.  You probably don't like people telling you what to do. You probably especially don't want to hear from that young immature version of yourself who did such a bad job with last year's resolutions.  

So scrap all your resolutions.  Just throw them all away.

From now on, all you need is one resolution. 

This resolution is scientifically proven to make you a better person and to help you achieve your goals.

That resolution is this:  Make lists of your goals. Write down what you need to do to achieve each one, in as much detail as you can (what, where, and when).  And do this everyday, or as often as you can.  

The science behind this is called implementation intentions.  It is behind books like 'Eat the Frog' and 'The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People.'  It is probably the only habit worth worrying about, because it encompasses all the others (being pro-active, beginning with the end in mind, get some learnin', blah blah blah).

A classic study by Gollwitzer and Brandstatter (1997) makes the basic point. It went like this: "Participants were requested, prior to Christmas break, to write a report on how they spent Christmas Eve. This report was to be written no later than 48 hours after the event and then sent to the experimenters, who were supposedly studying how people spend their holidays in modern times. Half of the participants were instructed to form implementation intentions by indicating on a questionnaire exactly when and where they intended to write the report during the critical 48 hours. The other half of the participants were not requested to pick a specific time and place. When participants' reports arrived in the mail after Christmas, three fourths of the implementation intention participants had written the reports in the requested time period, whereas only one third of the control participants managed to do so."  

This is kind of old school, but studies like it have been repeated over and over again. A recent meta-analysis, based on nearly 100 studies, found that this result has been replicated many times and has a reliably strong effect.  Indeed, it is probably one of the strongest effects for behavior change we know of.  

Just tell yourself what you are going to do, how you are going to do it, and when. Then let the magic do its work.  

Highly successful people claim to do it everyday. I don't consider myself highly successful, but I manage to get to this list fairly often, with predictably good results.  One year I did it almost everyday, and I have never been more productive.  The next year I shelved the idea, and I've never felt more disorganized.  I've been back on my lists since then, and I can feel the wind on my face as I motor through my little dreamworld.

It's also a well-justified reason to get yourself a new journal and then learn the art of making to-do lists, about which there are many helpful websites and YouTube videos.

References

Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: strong effects of simple plans. American psychologist, 54(7), 493.

Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta‐analysis of effects and processes. Advances in experimental social psychology, 38, 69-119.

Gollwitzer, P. M., & Brandstätter, V. (1997). Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit. Journal of personality and social psychology, 73(1), 186.