Because of what’s called the “Fresh Start Effect”, people get fired up at the beginning of a new year and overestimate what they’ll be able to accomplish. Our enthusiasm causes us to underestimate how hard it will be for us to follow through with our plans.
And that turns out to be the biggest problem with New Year’s resolutions. They are too difficult. People set goals that are much too broad, require too much effort to maintain, or are too far in the future. When, despite our hard work and sacrifices, we don’t see any improvement; we get discouraged and give up altogether.
Don’t be so hard on yourself. The problem isn’t some flaw in your personality. The answer is not to try to identify what’s wrong with you. You’re not any less motivated or disciplined than anyone else. Every human faces the same challenges when we try to change our behavior. The reason we all have such a hard time is because of situational factors. We just don’t know how to set up the right conditions to be successful. As Dr. Sean Young, the author of Stick With It, would say, “You’ve got to change the process, not the person.”
So stop making resolutions. Instead, use what we know about human behavior to make some small shifts in your personal change process.
- Turn your goals from abstract to real. It might be considered old-fashioned to write things out, but it works because it makes your intentions tangible, something you can see every day and come back to when you lose focus. You don’t have to tattoo yourself like that guy in the movie Momento, Post-it notes will do the trick. Write your goals in your planner, display them on your desk or refrigerator, put them in your phone calendar, tell them to other people, challenge your friends on social media. By sharing your goals and making them “public,” you’ll be less likely to backslide.
- Plan small steps. Routines work because they become easier to do than not doing them. Have you ever joined a gym that was too far away, thinking you would be able to get there four or five times a week? What happened the first time the weather was bad (as it often is in January) or the traffic worse than usual? You probably stopped going as often as you had planned when first you signed up. If something is too much trouble, too disruptive to our normal routine, then we aren’t going to keep doing it.
- Make changes in your environment.There will always be temptations and many opportunities to test our willpower. We want to eat out with our friends and enjoy birthday cake at the office. But in our own homes, we can make some simple changes to modify our environment, like making the better choice more visible and more convenient to access. Rearrange the pantry so the healthy stuff is at eye level. Make a space for the juicer on the counter. Put your medication or vitamins next to your toothbrush. Leave your workout clothes in the trunk of your car.
- Get an accountability partner.The key to consistent, sustained behavioral change is accountability. We need a reliable partner to help keep us motivated and remind us why we wanted to change in the first place. A good accountability partner will keep us on track with our goals and will follow up with us when we get stalled. This is a crucial element in Alcoholics Anonymous, Weight Watchers, leadership coaching, and other programs that have been successful in helping people to reverse negative habits and maintain long-term lifestyle changes.
Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits & Moving Your Life Positively Forward by James O. Prochaska, PhD, John C. Norcross, PhD, & Carlo C. Diclemente, PhD, 1994.
Stick With It: A Scientifically Proven Process for Changing Your Life-for Good by Sean Young, PhD. Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior and the UC Institute for Prediction Technology, 2017.