New Year’s Day is the reset button of the calendar year. As we go into it, we often feel as though we have a clean slate, which inspires many of us (44% of American adults) to conduct that time-honored ritual of creating new year’s resolutions.
That said, almost as common as setting of resolutions is our failure to sustain them. A Marist study showed 25% of those who make resolutions quit after 1 week and after 6 months, more than half of us have abandoned our resolutions.
With such a high failure rate, why create resolutions in the first place? According to the University of Scranton, people who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t. Or as Wayne Gretsky once said, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”.
Plus, a variety of writers have offered research about why we fail as well as suggestions for how to become more effective at keeping our resolutions. If the prize is a better chance to achieve our goals, that seems worth playing for, doesn’t it?
Here are 6 strategies, based on research, to help us beat the odds and keep those 2016 resolutions.
- Prioritize one. According to research from The University of Aberdeen, when splitting our efforts across tasks, most of us inaccurately estimate how difficult our goals are to achieve, leading us to often set our sights too high or too low. So, if several resolutions are going to be hard work with a high chance of failure, it’s best to pick one and focus all efforts on accomplishing it rather than trying to cover all bases.
- Uncover your competing commitments. In their HBR article, The Real Reason People Won’t Change, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey suggests that our commitment to a given change (eg, “I’m going to make and keep a daily list of “to do’s”) is almost always counterbalanced by an equally strong but unseen commitment to maintain the status quo. They recommend a process that includes identifying what we are currently doing that undermines our commitment or resolution (eg, “currently, I don’t write down all of my planned actions”), unearthing the associated, competing commitment of those actions (eg, “I’m committed to acting quickly and flexibly ”), and finally, the distinguishing the “big” assumption or fear of what would happen if we actually followed through on our commitment (eg, “if I wrote down everything I had to do, it would slow me down”). We then have room to test these assumptions and practice acting different.
- Use your body. While it’s easy to thoughtfully draft resolutions from our comfortable lazy-boy, daily stresses can trigger our sympathetic nervous system to generate a fight, flight or freeze response. When this happens, our ability to reason, including remembering the logic and value of our new year’s resolution, diminishes greatly. Instead, Wendy Palmer in Leadership Embodiment suggests even simple practices like changing our posture or focusing on our breath can quickly change how we think and feel, and return us to a place where we can act. For example, try deeply slouching over, cross your arms, and look down at your feet as you softly repeat a 2016 resolution. How ready and able to take action do you feel? This time, stand-up tall and straight, feet shoulder width apart, place your hands your hips and look off into the distance. What do you notice?
- Remember the “habit loop”. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duigg identifies that the key to establishing or changing productive habits is to address the three components that create a “habit loop”: 1) a cue, which triggers the habit to start and makes our brain go into autopilot mode, 2) the behavior itself, and then 3) a reward, which is how the brain learns to remember and crave this pattern. For example, for the action of “working out”, using a cue (eg, a specific time of day or our running shoes by the door) can help move the action towards becoming habit and establishing a reward afterwards (eg, going out for ice cream) builds a positive association with that action.
- Being precise matters. While less than 30% of research subjects who were broadly asked to exercise once for 20 minutes during a week actually exercised, 91% of those who committed to exercising at a specific time, on a specific day, at designed location, did so. In his book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, Tony Schwartz observes that defining precisely in advance when we’re going to undertake a behavior reduces the amount of energy we have to expend to get it done. On the other hand, having to decide on the spot about whether or not to do an activity, in the face of other temptations, reduces our limited reservoir of will and discipline.
- Commit publicly; enlist support. While this is a time-honored, widely used strategy, it’s particularly relevant for those of us used to powering through by ourselves. Instead, when we make a commitment to someone else to change a specific behavior, it creates a higher level of accountability. As Tony Schwartz notes, it’s not just about our desire to live up to our public commitments, but also that other can help us see how we’re getting in our own way. Plus, it’s reinforcing to be recognized by others.
Do these help? What other strategies have you used or seen? Good luck in 2016.