achieving new year’s resolutions – a strategy for building positive change part one

reach your goalsI am one of those people who like making New Year’s Resolutions. Psychologically speaking, the first of January is a threshold that heralds a new beginning, a clean slate and therefore a great time to examine life – what’s working, what’s not, what direction you want to go in, what changes you want to make.

Around 40% of the population make New Year’s Resolutions. Unfortunately, only around 10% of us will actually succeed in reaching our goals. The important question is: what is the 10% doing to be successful? The answer: they are following up on their resolve by taking consistent action.

Making resolutions and setting goals is the easy part. I resolve to ‘lose weight’, oh, you know, a couple of times a day. Getting out of bed and actually doing some exercise takes a whole lot more effort. But there are few tricks that we can employ to make the process a little easier and therefore more successful and that’s what this week is about: building a strategy that works for making positive changes.

Goal setting basics

I’ve written a lot in the past about setting goals (you can find links to these articles in the resources section at the end of this article), so I won’t go over old ground, except as a quick summary. The important things to remember when setting goals are:

  • Write down your goals and keep them somewhere visible where you can remind yourself of them each day.
  • Make your goals positive: not ‘I want to lose weight’ but ‘I want to reach my goal weight of…’
  • Make your goals relevant: your goals have to really matter to you. To reach your goal, it needs to be something you really want, not something you think you should want. Know why you want to reach a certain goal. What are the benefits?
  • Make your goals specific: not ‘I want to save money’ but ‘I want to have $2,000 in the bank by December 2012’.
  • Make your goals measurable: if your goal is to have $2,000 in the bank by December, then you will need to save an average of $166 per month, so by the end of April if you have $665 in the bank, you can ‘measure’ you’re success at staying on track.

As I’ve mentioned, making resolutions and goal setting is the easy part. It’s putting your resolutions into action that takes a little effort.

It all comes down to our habits

At the end of the day what we’re really talking about is changing a set of lifestyle habits and routines from ones that aren’t working for you to habits that will make you happier and healthier. Saving money is about changing spending habits. Losing weight is about changing eating and exercise habits. Quitting smoking is about ditching nicotine habits. When it comes to achieving your resolutions, what you really need to do is examine and adjust your habits (more below).

Changing habits takes a little time. It can take at least a month, sometimes more to override an old habit and cement a new one. Give yourself that time. In fact, you’ve got 365 days to work on it.

What’s working for you now?

Your current habits are working for you. You’ve got very, very good reason to continue to not save money, to eat junk food, to smoke, to not exercise… While you may rationalise that exercising, for instance, is healthy, the reasons not to exercise are currently more compelling (otherwise you’d be doing it): you don’t have the time, you don’t have the energy, your foot is sore, you’ve got nothing to wear… and if you’re like me, probably a thousand other very good reasons why you can’t exercise.

Before you can make resolutions that you’re going to stick to, you need to really understand why you do what you do and address those underlying reasons first.

Regular readers will know that our major financial faux pas is buying and eating takeaway food too regularly. It’s not only a strain on our budget, it isn’t healthy either. Why do we buy takeaway food? Because at the end of the day (literally) I’m too tired to cook. To resolve to save money by avoiding takeaway is all well and good, but we’re bound to fail. Instead, we would be more successful instigating backup strategies for nights when I’m too exhausted to cook; strategies such as having easy things to prepare (and wash up) in the pantry, having regular nights where DH cooks, eating a healthy mid-afternoon snack for energy and having a routine to prepare food early in the day (when I’m not so tired). By avoiding the underlying causes for the takeaway habit, we avoid the takeaway.

Tackling underlying reasons for your habits means that you automatically achieve your main goal. Another example: if your main goal is to save money and you find your underlying habits include shopping every Saturday and spending on impulse, you could resolve to avoid the shops. But let’s go deeper (and make the resolution positive). Maybe you go to the store because you’re bored? Why not resolve then to engage in a hobby at that time instead? Maybe you’re lonely? Why not resolve to spend Saturday afternoons catching up with friends?

By shifting the focus, you’re examining the real reason for your current habits, changing them to positive habits and better yet, achieving your main goal of saving money automatically. The automatic part is important as we’ll explore next.

The myth of willpower

Had a hard day at work? Came home and ate 2 litres of chocolate ice cream? Don’t be too hard on yourself, we all have a limited capacity for self-control.

The part of the brain that is largely responsible for willpower is the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain also handles short-term memory, keeps us focused and solves abstract problems. And unfortunately, it seems that our brain’s capacity is not limitless. A tired brain is going to struggle and most likely fail to resist temptation. Conversely, focusing on resisting temptation and sticking to resolutions can affect short-term memory, concentration and productivity in other areas of life.

The point is that by relying on willpower alone (‘I will save money’, ‘I won’t eat pizza’) you are setting yourself up for failure (and fatigue). Instead, to change your habits, you need to use strategies other than sheer willpower.

There’s good news though on the willpower front. First, if you do give into temptation then you can give yourself a break, you’re not a failure, you are just getting signals from your brain that it’s been a tough day and possibly your strategies for changing your habits need tweaking. Tomorrow’s a brand new day.

Secondly, research has found that self-control can be strengthened through exercise. Just as you can build muscle by lifting weights, you can increase willpower by practicing mental discipline regularly, with necessary time-off for indulgence. And remember, once your new habit becomes a habit, you will no longer have to consciously work at maintaining it – it will be automatic.

Thirdly, research has found that those who have better willpower use strategies to distract themselves. There is a famous study conducted by Prof. Philip Mischer, where a marshmallow is placed in front of a four year old child. The examiner then contrives to leave the room for five minutes, but not before telling the child that they can either eat the marshmallow now or wait until the examiner returns, at which point they can have two marshmallows. Like many resolutions there is competition between immediate reward (eating the marshmallow, staying in bed rather than exercising, buying that pair of shoes rather than saving) versus the long term reward where there may short term unfulfillment. Those children who sung to themselves, played with their shoelaces, sat on their hands and chatted and otherwise distracted themselves were more successful at waiting until the examiner returned before being rewarded with both marshmallows.

So next time temptation strikes, don’t rely on willpower, use distraction. Do something else enjoyable and relaxing until the temptation passes.

Finally, the strategy that best counteracts our limited capacity for self-control is to eliminate the need to exercise willpower in the first place. In practical terms, that means automating savings each pay day so that you don’t miss money you don’t even see. It means not buying junk food so that it’s not even in the house during those moments of weakness. It means avoiding the shopping centre and therefore avoiding impulse buys.

As noted above however, you won’t get very far if you just eliminate these habits. It’s all very well not to have junk food in the house, but what are you going to eat if you’re hungry? What are you going to do with your Saturday afternoons? As well as eliminating the need to exercise willpower, instigate new and positive habits that will support your goals (by stocking the cupboard with healthy snacks, for instance) and you will be in that 10% of people who do achieve their new year’s resolution.

As this article has already become quite long, I will cover the final and most important part of achieving goals in tomorrow’s article: creating action plans that really work.


Below is a some links to articles written previously on making and keeping resolutions and goal setting.

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