Dr Maike Neuhaus
New Year’s resolutions: 10 tips to make them work
A combination of ease, contentment, deep happiness, pride and peace – this is how I would describe how I feel when I reflect on a goal I’ve achieved (you know, like the one involving liberation from a daily 300g dose of chocolate I wrote about here). It’s important we take time to reflect on our wins, as it increases our confidence, reinforces our goal behaviour, makes us happy – all of which make more success more likely again. It’s a virtuous cycle, which you’ll want jump on.
However, when it comes to our goals for the new year, for most of us, participation in the virtuous cycle is short-lived. Four of five people fail to achieve at least some of their new year’s resolutions – a statistic that inspired last week’s blog article in the first place, where I reflected on ten reasons we fail. There are many more, of course. For example, focusing on what is not working well, without reflection on how to solve the issue.
So, here are ten tips (in corresponding order to last week’s fails) how to make your new year’s resolutions work.
1) Understand the practice of self-leadership
Behaviour change is hard! Instead of aiming for a complete life overhaul, I would only pick one goal and focus my energy on that. Developing an understanding of what’s involved in self-leadership and what existing skills you can capitalise on is essential for goal progress. How have you mastered a new habit in the past? How can you apply that to your new goal? It’s also helpful to identify your soft spots and how you can avoid them this time. Where have you come off your goal path in the past? How can you avoid encountering a similar challenge this time?
2) Watch out for moments of cognitive dissonance
If we want to make good decisions, we need to learn the art of constructive thinking. This includes understanding the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance and the actions we take to release it. The thing is, we all have an innate psychological need for consistency between who we believe we are and the actions we take. If this consistency is threatened, we experience cognitive dissonance. And that feels uncomfortable and makes us highly driven to get rid of it. We do that by changing
Our behaviour so it’s in line with our belief about ourselves,
The perception of our behaviour, or
Our belief about ourselves.
I believe new year’s resolutions are fundamentally flawed because they provide a perfect excuse for not taking any action after all. Why wait until the new year to take action towards your goal?
3) Set goals based on your core values
We sometimes chase goals that mean more to others than ourselves. While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with that, our motivation is highest if we pursue something that is important to us. So, what is most important to you in life? Exploring our core desired feelings or values is time well spent. You can do this by pondering values lists or reflecting on the reasons behind important decisions of yours in the past.
4) Look after your other needs
When we fail to achieve our goals, it can be helpful to examine if it’s because we’re neglecting other needs of ours. If you read my previous article, you may have noticed that what I was craving when coming home at night was simply (quick) energy. A better sleep routine, some forethought regarding meal preparation for the day and a short break every now and then could have probably spared me a few sugar highs.
5) Identify what success will look like and celebrate it
If you’re used to SMART goal setting, you know that the reason we make goals time-bound is so that
we know exactly what action steps to take, and
so that we know when we’ve done what we set out to do.
It’s best to set these milestones as often as possible – they need to be like a rope you can climb along. And don’t forget to celebrate every time you pass one. This can be as tiny as a mental acknowledgement of your achievement and is vital to build self-efficacy.
6) Set goals that you can achieve
Confidence in your own ability to create change (i.e. self-efficacy) is crucial in order to achieve your goals. It’s a virtuous cycle, because the more often you succeed, the more confident you will become, the more often you succeed etc. While this may resemble a chicken and egg scenario, it is not: because success comes before confidence. So, when you set your goals, weigh your ambition up with your self–efficacy to ensure you set goals you cannot fail. Then incrementally increase your goal from there.
7) Use your willpower wisely
Your willpower is limited. While you can train it to some extent (mindfulness practice is a great way to do so!), it is also influenced by your lifestyle choices. Ensuring that you get enough sleep, moving your body regularly and eating well is not just great for your overall health and wellbeing but also help you achieve your goals in general. If you’re like me a few years back and try to eat less chocolate, just make sure you don’t have any in the house. When it comes to exercising more (or a few other potential new year’s resolutions) making them part of a morning routine works a treat, because our willpower tanks are usually full then.
8) Mobilise social support
Keeping your goals a secret is a great way to spare yourself embarrassment in case you don’t succeed. Unfortunately, it also makes failure a lot more likely. What we should be doing instead is not only to tell others about our plans, but also to actively engage them. Telling others about our goals can lead to great conversations about our motives and increase our motivation. It enables our dearest to check in with us and hold us accountable; and, it empowers them to support us when things get tough.
9) Articulate your goals positively
You can aim to do less of something or moving away from it, such as spending less time on social media. Or, you can aim to do more of something or move towards it, such as spending more quality time with the family. The former is called avoidance goals, the latter approach goals. Generally speaking, it’s best to formulate your goals as approach goals: you’ll be more motivated and more likely to achieve them. Approach goals are also associated with higher levels of wellbeing.
10) Embrace failure and cultivate grit
Do you know what can, more reliably than any other characteristic, distinguish the successful from the non-successful? It’s not intelligence, not luck, not wealth, not talent nor anything else we tend to think of first - but grit. Grit is the combination of passion and perseverance for long-term goals. Resilience is your ability to bounce back from failure. Grit is being resilient over a long period of time. So, before setting out for your goal journey, establish a coping plan for situations that could bring you off track and be committed to embrace setbacks along the way.