A new year is upon us and, if you’re like a lot of people, that means it’s time to set some resolutions for yourself. Often, people’s resolutions involve diet and/or exercise . . . a prioritization of the physical domain that’s reflected in the spiking of new gym memberships each January.
No matter what they are specifically, people tend not to have a lot of success with their resolutions, though. Some studies have generally found a 40-50% success rate after six months, and around 20% after two years. Others have found that only about half of people keep their resolutions for even a month!
Fortunately, researchers in the area of goals and motivation have discovered a wealth of factors that influence our success with change efforts, no matter the time of year.
Below, I summarize a handful of the ones I use all the time with my coaching clients (and my therapy clients, for that matter).
1. Preparation is key
Studies show that the biggest predictor of success of a New Year's resolution isn't the desire to change, or even the support you have from others. It's being prepared and feeling like you can actually do it (which is a byproduct of both being prepared and being aware of past achievements).
So, don't pick a resolution on a whim at 11:59. You'll be more likely to fail and feel bad about yourself, making it even harder to make the changes you really want and need.
2. Set your sights on the invisible
Research has demonstrated, over and over, that you’re much better off with intrinsic long-term goals than extrinsic ones. That means aiming for things that make you feel good inside, rather than objective, material goals. Ones that have come up with clients recently are competence at work, close connection with others, compassion (for self and others), and reduced feelings of stress.
The payoffs are a greater likelihood of beating the odds and staying motivated over time, and greater feelings of happiness and well-being while en route to your goals. Plus, the steps you take toward intrinsic goals are likely to set you up for extrinsic success anyway!
3. Intentions, not resolutions
Those intrinsic motivators that I just mentioned work because they appeal to those parts of you deep in your core self that like to be acknowledged and nourished.
They don’t care so much about hard-and-fast results; they just appreciate the attention, and that’s why you’ll feel happier just setting your sights on them regardless of whether you achieve them. (Really! The research is very clear on this!)
Therefore, it’s OK to be kind with yourself when making your resolutions. In fact, it’s better to think of them as intentions instead. You’re setting the intention to align your actions with your deepest human needs and capacities; to get out of your own way.
Setting a resolution can feel more like imposing yet another set of external expectations on yourself, which can erode motivation and provide more fuel for beating yourself up if things don’t go as smoothly as you hope.
4. Extrinsic goals have their place
It isn’t the case that all objective, material goals are bad for you. In fact, it’s very helpful to your change efforts if you establish some objective mid-term goals that can serve as milestones on your way to the long-term intrinsic ones.
Doing this helps you gauge your progress, stay interested, and feel more confident and capable—all of which can keep you headed in the right direction. Just be sure you don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees, and forget that the objective milestones aren't the end-all be-all!
5. Work at your own pace
It may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: January 1 is just another day. Nothing magical happens when you unwrap a new calendar. So, first do the planning and preparation you need in order to develop goals that are meaningful for you, and set yourself up with the tools and confidence you need to succeed.
If that means you don't start until January 2 or February 10, that's ok. Remember that every time you take a breath, you have a fresh start and a new lease on life. (If that sounds New Age-y to you, try not taking a breath and then see what you think!) Don’t let the calendar psych you out.
6. Be good to yourself
Don't focus on the slip-ups. People are more successful at behavioral change if they keep track of the little victories instead of the setbacks. For instance, if you're quitting smoking, keep a log of all the times that you didn't indulge a craving, not a log of the cigarettes you've had.
Your change efforts are an attempt to do something really good for yourself, so let that be reflected in the feedback you’re seeking out.
Those are a few of my thoughts for the new year. If these tips make sense to you, I’d encourage you to check out this article series of mine on the science of goals and motivation and how you can use it to your benefit.
Best wishes for well-being and positive change no matter the season!