Welcome to 2017. This is the year that you are going to change for the better, right? People love to set goals. It can help us feel motivated and focused. Unfortunately for us, there is such a big gap between intention and action that many of our new year’s resolutions fall by the wayside. This blog looks at why this is the case and what you can do about it.
Even with the best of intentions, people are often poor predictors of their own future behaviour. The Daffodil experiment is a great example of this. On one weekend in spring each year, Cornell University sell daffodils to raise money for charity. The students are motivated (as it is for a good cause), have easy access to them (the daffodils are on sale everywhere on campus) and they are cheap (they only cost a dollar). When asked how likely they were to buy a daffodil, 83% of undergraduate students said they would. The reality? Only 43% did. Clearly good intentions aren't enough.
In terms of new year’s resolutions, estimates suggest that our willpower to stick to a diet lasts around 5 weeks, gym plans fall by the wayside within 6 months and almost half us will give up on our other resolutions by the end of January.
Sound depressing? Fear not. Research from psychology may hold the answer about how we can maintain new habits. Upon reviewing all the research to date, this study suggests that the following five areas should help:
The motivation you have to start a new behaviour (i.e. I want to lose weight) may light the spark, but over time is unlikely to maintain the fire. Finding a motivation for the short term (i.e. going to a group class at the gym is fun) is important as well. We need instant gratification as well as long term ambition if our goals if we are to maintain a new habit. Doing something that isn’t enjoyable because of a long term reward is unlikely to last long (for a really interesting review on this, see our blog ‘Is School One Big Marshmallow Test?’
Developing self-control is really hard. If you surround yourself with the thing you are trying to avoid, you are more likely to engage in it. Think carefully about how you can develop effective strategies that help you overcome barriers and obstacles in your way. This can include how you talk to yourself and reminding yourself of your goal.
Maximise Your Resources
Look after yourself both physical and psychologically. If you are feeling tired, anxious and frustrated, it is difficult to be your best you. Good ways of maximising your personal resources include getting a good night’s sleep regularly (see our ‘9 Common Sleep Mistakes’ blog for tips on how to do so), not putting yourself under too much stress and not burdening yourself with unrealistic expectations.
Create Daily Habits
New strategies and interventions are more likely to be effective if you weave your new behaviour into your daily routine. Researchers described this as being ‘subtle and stealthy’. If you do not have to think too hard about if you should do it or not, it can become second nature. Habit. Routine. Changing too much too soon is quite a shock to the system, which can seem like a mountain to climb on the days you don’t feel too motivated.
Build a Team Around You
A supportive environment full of people who can help you is key. There is an old African proverb which states, ‘if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’. A recent study on mental effort or excursion, found that is in contagious. This study found that when conducting separate computer tasks, but in pairs, individuals performed better when both partners had to give the same level of mental effort (aka same task difficulty) than when the individual was the only one with a more difficult task. So if you want to work hard, and work well, try and surround yourself with people who do exactly that.
These five tips and strategies don’t guarantee that new year’s resolutions will be kept. Behaviour change is hard. Really hard. There is a big gap to bridge between intention and action. By being psychological smart, that is by maintaining motivation, maximising self-control, looking after yourself, weaving new behaviours into daily habits and having good social support, you give yourself the best chance possible.