Yes, it’s that time of the year again. The time of the year when we feel as if we have to turn over a new leaf. The time when we misguidedly imagine that the arrival of a new year will magically provide the catalyst, motivation, and persistence we need to reinvent ourselves.
The new year gives you hope of a chance to change to the better, you just know that 2018 will be your year! In January gyms are full and grocery carts are healthy as around half of the developed world have made their New Year´s resolutions. We all know how it goes “This year I am doing better, becoming healthier, more productive and so on”. But the sad reality is that 80% fail their resolution already by February, and only 8% have succeeded by the end of the year. Why even bother making a New Year´s resolution if the odds of succeeding are that low?
Studies show that those that make a resolution with a better technique are 11x more likely to reach their goal. I'll reveal the simple, yet powerful secrets to sustainable behavioral changes through better resolutions.
1. Make it small and explicit
This is the most recurring expert advice: break big goals into smaller milestones. A study on New Year´s resolutions found that one of the reasons resolution-makers succeeded 11x better was that they made their goal small and explicit. For example, if your goal is to “lose weight”, make resolutions like “go for a walk every day” or “add more veggies to every meal”. If you want to “reduce work stress” a good resolution would be to “turn off email after 7 pm” or “prioritize my to-do list at the end of every day”. Small goals are not only more achievable but every time you succeed at it you solidify yourself as the boss of your own life and you build a habit of success.
2. Adjust your expectations and make the goal realistic
One reason so many New Year’s resolutions fail is due to what psychologist Janet Polivy calls the “False Hope Syndrome” – when self-confidence turns into overconfidence and unrealistic expectations. We think achieving our goal will be fast and easy, and that the change will be big and rewarding. When our expectations aren’t met, we feel discouraged and we give up. Our unrealistic expectations are fueled by big promises made by the health and self-help industry, but also by our own positivity. Don’t get us wrong – it’s brilliant to believe in your ability to change! But keep it real: self-change can be difficult and adjusting your goals and expectations will help you replace false hope with real hope. Ask yourself, what resolution have you tried in the past that you didn’t succeed at? What can you learn from it?
3. Don’t expect it to be enjoyable every day
Making a resolution can be exciting, but there’s a caveat: When you’re excited about a goal, your brain is tricked into believing that the resolution will keep you happy and that you don’t really need to make the change. (Spoiler alert: you need to actually change something to change something.) Psychologist Tim Pychyl talks about “affective forecasting”: you feel good when making the resolution, and you expect to feel good about it in the future too. Then you’re shocked to find out you don’t actually love running, even though you loved the thought of doing it every morning. When your expectations aren’t met, you put it off. Pychyl points out that it’s possible you’ll never enjoy the actual action, but according to him, approaching it mindfully can help. Viewing running mindfully makes you see it in an unbiased light: running itself is a neutral action, to which you don’t need to connect any feelings, positive or negative. You can just do it and enjoy the benefits.
4. Re-write your self-story
Just making a small, explicit and realistic resolution is not enough. You need to make it fit your identity. Social psychologist Timothy Wilson says your decisions are directed by your self-story, i.e. your view of who you are and what’s important to you. You’re constantly trying to stay true to this perception. Decisions that match it feels right, decisions that don’t match it feel wrong. For example, if you’re trying to become a morning person, but your self-story says “I value my lazy evenings, and I think morning people are boring”, then you probably won’t make it work. Wilson advises “story-editing”:
First, write out your existing story. Pay special attention to anything that could contradict your new behavior. If you want to start eating healthier, write out a realistic story that shows why you aren’t already doing it.
Then re-write the story. Tell the story about a person who wants to lead a healthier life and pays attention to eating habits. Adopting the new self-story will make decisions that support it feels right.
5. Finally, design a resolution you can keep
Now you may be thinking “how should I, very concretely, define a resolution I can succeed in?”. These 7 “rules” can help you design a better New Year’s resolution that’s made to stick:
1. MAKE IT SHORTER-TERM. “Run a marathon” is a long-term goal. “Add 2 km to my run every month” or “Go for 3 runs every week” are more short-term.
2. MAKE IT SPECIFIC. “Be a better parent” is a great goal, but not a good resolution. “Put away electronic devices one hour every evening, and give the kids my full attention” is a winner.
3. MAKE IT MEASURABLE. “Drink less alcohol” is an admirable goal, but to make it measurable you could say “I’ll have max one unit of alcohol an evening”.
4. MAKE IT TIME-BOUND. Instead of simply saying “I will exercise more”, you’ll be more likely to achieve it if you say “I will exercise Monday and Thursday mornings”.
5. MAKE IT EASY. Make your resolution as easy as possible to stick to. For example, prepare healthy snacks in the morning or add a phone reminder when it’s time for your power walk.
6. TELL OTHERS. If you want to cut down overtime at work, don’t go at it alone. Tell your spouse or a friend, and ask them to keep you accountable.
7. ONE RESOLUTION AT A TIME. Trying to take a 30 min walk every morning while also trying to get to work earlier isn’t going to work. Tackle just one new habit at a time.
Finally, accept setbacks. No one is perfect, so setbacks will happen however committed you are. Be it a cigarette, a cookie, an impulse buy or a nagging comment to your spouse. It’s what you do after the setback that counts: instead of giving up because you “already failed”, tell yourself “it’s ok” and just pick up where you left off.
What you do every day, most days is much more important than what you do once in a while.