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the psychology behind new year's resolution

How You Can Stick to Your New Year’s Resolutions Better

No matter what race we are, what country we’re from, and how we choose to live our lives, one thing we all share in common at the start of every year is setting New Year’s resolutions. Whether small or big, held privately or shared publicly, most of us can find ourselves ending off the last few days with hopes of the future, and entering the dawn of a new year with resolute desires for something better.

Yet, with us all mapping out our next plans on how to get thinner or become smarter, why is it that so many of us end up failing a few weeks in? In fact, research states that most people end up failing their new year’s resolutions a few weeks to a month in. Surprisingly, only 8% of people actually achieve their resolutions. While we all might go into the new year, excited for great change, after a bit of time has passed, all of those hopes end up fizzling out — especially in a time of constant uncertainty.

If that is the case, why is it that we make new year’s resolutions in the first place?

Why we make New Year’s resolutions

For many people, it might simply be due to sticking with some past-time traditions that have existed as far back as we can remember.

But perhaps, one of the main reasons is that this marked moment gives us a chance to sort of ‘renew’ our lives. The start of a new year is something that many of us — no matter the race, gender, or religion — share in common. We all return to this single point in time, that repeats every year, 12 months later. New Years Resolutions are a way for us to refresh ourselves — open to new opportunities and an occasion for change.

As a clinical psychologist and professor, Sabrina Romanoff states,

“We tend to set resolutions because the New Year serves as a cyclical marker of time during which we reevaluate and take inventory on our lives.”

So then, it’s already a month into the new year, and you might be wondering: what can I do to set myself up for achieving my goals this year?

Implementation intentions

One way to go about doing so is to consider using what psychologists call implementation intentions.

This refers to a strategy in behavior modification first introduced by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer. Simply put, Implementation intentions are if-then plans that link situational cues with specific responses.

In other words, by setting up a plan beforehand on how to act or respond, IF a given situation were to arise, then you have a greater probability of preventing yourself from falling. For example, let’s say you want to stop smoking cigarettes. Unfortunately for you, post-meal cravings are what stump you every time, which is when you find yourself weakest to the allure of that tasty cigarette.

quitting cigarettes

Usually, people just say “I want to quit cigarettes” and stop at that. This is what is known simply as ‘goal intention.’ But what often ends up happening is, you try to wait it out and eventually, succumb to sweet temptation.

Yet, with implementation intentions, you go one step further than simply saying “I want to quit cigarettes” and instead create a plan that clearly states,

“If situation X arises, I will perform response Y. ”

So every time that craving kicks in, you tell yourself to pop a mint in your mouth instead. By preparing this action beforehand, you are being intentional with how you implement action to a given trigger — hence creating a new implementation intention in your behavior.

Make SMART goals

While that helps to modify your behavior in small bits, let’s take things a step further by looking at a common practice that is used in many businesses known as setting SMART goals.

First heard in November 1981, in an issue of Management Review by George T. Doran, SMART goal is an acronym that highlighted ways for managers to lay out their objectives in a more clear, concise manner. Over the years, there have been different iterations of what the individual words of the SMART acronym is, but generally, they can be seen as follows:

  • Specific – One reason why people often fail a goal is because whatever goal they set for themselves is too vague or broad. To improve the likeliness of achieving something, first make sure you set them up to be as specific as possible. Not only does this help to understand what you’re aiming for, but it allows you to mentally and even physically break down the goal into smaller parts. The more specific you can get, the clearer the path to that goal becomes.
  • Measureable – Besides setting a goal, the next step is to ensure that you can actually achieve it. You can’t simply just wish for something to happen. You need to really consider what the standard of success is, and list out an acceptance criteria for accomplishment. Define what is required to prove you’ve achieved this goal — this helps set up an indicator of progress.
  • Attainable – Grand goals are great, but making them too out of reach can prevent you from truly obtaining them. As such, its best to scale and specify your goals at first, ensuring they are reasonably achievable. Anyone and everyone can make grandiose claims for something, but it all means nothing if you end up feeling overwhelmed by it all and give up a month in. Sometimes, we can get caught up in other people’s desires and misplace their dreams as ours. Make sure you settle into reality and define something that is actually possible in the here and now.
  • Realistic/Relevant – Echoing on the point of attainability, you need to make sure that the goal you’re setting out to accomplish is realistically feasible with the resources you have, while also being relevant to who you are.
  • Time-based – The biggest issue in setting goals without any time-line or due date is that there is no sense of urgency involved. Anyone can want to lose weight or desire to make more money, but to actually achieve such a goal, you need to assign a time frame to do so.
SMART Goals: Definition and Examples | Indeed.com
Image via Indeed

The power of deadlines

There has been countless research showing that deadlines actually do help in improving performance — although only to a certain point.

Explained by what is called the Yerkes-Dodson Law, this demonstrates that there is an actual empirical relationship between pressure and performance, with an increase in performance with more mental or physical arousal.

Image via Wikipedia

However, it’s important to note that, this only occurs up to a certain optimal point. If the ‘arousal’ becomes too high (aka stressful), then performance may in fact decrease.

Taking the SMART goals into consideration, it’s important to look back on your resolutions and reflect on whether they fit this criterion. To make your resolutions — or any goal for that matter — more effective, it is important to set specific and relevant goals. This will help people to stay on track and make better decisions in the long term. When speaking about something broadly, your brain does not grasp the importance of it, and the habits that have not been formed to achieve such a goal, result in you leaving them to the waste side.

Excellence is habit, not action

Resolutions don’t always have to be big. A person can always improve their lives in small, bite-sized actions. What’s most important isn’t the size of the goal, but the ability to achieve them, and in turn, gain that confidence to then shape yourself into something bigger and better in the long run.

Setting small goals like saving $20 every month or going out for brunch with friends at least once a month might seem trivial or minimal at first, but in time, the habit of achieving goals can be much more impactful. In the end, as Aristotle once said,

We are what we do. Excellence, therefore, is a habit, not an act

Aristotle Altemps Inv8575.jpg

Final thoughts

If you find yourself struggling to stick with your goals this year, remember that great change takes time and patience. Sometimes simply making small steps is just enough to start turning that wheel of motivated momentum.

Setting and following through with goals can seem daunting, but it’s never ever impossible. You just need to learn to implement an action plan beforehand, aiming to be much more intentional in your approach — even with the smallest things.

And as always, when looking to achieve something more long term, remembering to always think “SMART”