New Year’s is a time when many of us stop to reflect on the year just passed and promise ourselves that we’ll do better in the one to come. The custom of making resolutions at the start of a new year goes back to the times of Julius Caesar. He introduced the Julian calendar and declared January 1 the first day of the year in honor of Janus the god of beginnings. I’m guessing it took the early Romans another two weeks to discover the custom of the broken resolution.
A recent study by the University of Scranton found that of the 45% of Americans who “usually” make New Year’s resolutions every year, only 8% actually complete them. Notice that we don’t call them New Year’s commitments. The word resolution comes from the root word resolve – to settle or solve a problem. But when it comes to New Year’s resolutions I can’t help but see it as “re-solve” – coming up with the same old solutions over and over, and never really changing anything.
If we’re so bad at completing our resolutions, why do we keep making them? Behavioral psychologists blame something called the “fresh start effect.” A study by researchers at the Wharton School found that “temporal landmarks” such as New Year’s Day (or a birthday, start of week, month, or semester), enable people to psychologically distance the present self from its past imperfections. In other words, they allow us to believe we can start fresh with a clean slate.
The problem is that the ingrained habits of the old self do not change as easily as the pages on calendar. We may believe in the promise of a fresh start but what sustains motivation once we hit the middle of the month? The idea of a fresh start is usually not enough to keep us going.
Here’s a list of the Top 10 New Year’s resolutions from the University of Scranton study:
- Lose Weight
- Getting Organized
- Spend Less, Save More
- Enjoy Life to the Fullest
- Staying Fit and Healthy
- Learn Something Exciting
- Quit Smoking
- Help Others
- Fall in Love
- Spend More Time with Family
Sound familiar? These are the things we keep telling ourselves we want to do each year. No wonder so many resolutions fail. Simple goals like these are great for inspiring enthusiasm, but are too passive, vague, and vulnerable to the whims of chance to get you through the long haul. It would be great to fall in love this year. But how exactly are you going to make that happen?
To effectively change our behavior we should forget resolutions and focus on goals that are self-motivating, realistic and sustainable. In this we can take a lesson from Laurel House’s Thinking Well program, which helps people with mental health disorders improve their thinking, planning and problem-solving skills.
10 Tips for Setting Goals That Really Work
Get Specific – It’s not enough to say you want to learn something exciting. Name the skill and figure out how to make it happen. Last year I had an idea it would be good for my brain to learn a new language. So I bought the Rosetta Stone Power Pack to learn Italian and put myself on a weekly program. A year later I am not as far in the program as I hoped I’d be. But I do have a beginner’s grasp of the language. Felice anno nuovo, everybody!
Keep It Action-Oriented – Most people need a plan of action to make effective changes in their lives. That’s why goals like quitting smoking often fail. Changing a firmly entrenched pattern of behavior takes more than good intentions. You need a plan with action steps: set a quit date, get the patch, learn new skills and behaviors to replace nicotine, and look for support and encouragement.
Set Yourself Up for Success – In Laurel House’s Thinking Well program we use an educational approach called “errorless learning.” This theory holds that people learn best when they feel they are succeeding about 80% of the time. This is one of the reasons the gradated approach of the Rosetta Stone language programs works so well. I may stink at beginning Italian but the continuous reinforcement of scoring 80% or higher on my lessons keeps me motivated as I progress up the ladder to progressively harder material.
Challenge Yourself – Notice I wrote 80% in the tip above – not 90% or 95%. That’s because people need to feel challenged by their goals. It’s no fun playing a video game in which your character dies 9 times out of 10. But you would quickly lose interest if she never died at all.
Spread Your Goals Over Multiple Domains – As a casual birdwatcher, one of my goals for 2016 is to see 125 species of birds in their native habitat (that’s a really low bar compared to this guy whose 2015 goal was 5,000). This is a good goal for an introspective nerd like me because it covers so many different areas of life I want to improve: more exercise, spending time outdoors, visiting new places, and improving my attention. It even gives me opportunities to be more sociable as I run into other nerds like me at birding hot spots.
Break Them Into Smaller Steps – To achieve my “Big Year” birding goal I will need to set and achieve lots of little mini goals, such as improving my bird ID skills, investing in some new field guides, and planning a series of day trips and perhaps a couple of birding weekends. Breaking great big goals into smaller ones will help you to stay motivated while you slowly close in on this year’s BHAG (Big, Hairy Audacious Goal).
Track Your Progress – Whether you use a physical activity tracker like a Fitbit to monitor your distance walked each day or log your progress in a journal, tracking your goals will help you keep on top of them. I use an Excel spreadsheet with separate pages for annual and weekly goals. But whether you use Excel or a simple To Do list, the act of checking off another item on the list is intrinsically motivating.
Match Your Goals to Your Values – Everyone agrees that staying fit is a worthwhile goal and more power to you if you can commit to 3 or 4 sessions at the gym each week. But you can also exercise and enjoy the great outdoors while participating in your community’s Saturday morning park and river clean-up or by growing your own healthy food in an organic garden. The most effective goals relate to causes you believe in. That’s why a commitment to eating healthier foods from sustainable sources stands a better chance of long-term success than a goal to lose 30 pounds.
Make Yourself Accountable – The person you are most accountable to is you, but it helps to enlist others in your quest. Last year my awesome wife did several things to ensure the success of her goal to run a 5 K Turkey Trot: setting a specific goal, downloading an app that gave her daily training objectives, and investing in a good pair of running shoes. Perhaps the most important thing she did was enlist several “goal buddies” to train with her and help her stay on track. For a sociable person like my wife it also made the tedium of training more enjoyable. And that brings me to the final tip…
Have Fun – Clear your mind of negative thoughts and take as much joy in the process of change as you will in its results. Here’s to a better you in 2016!
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