Instead of self-flagellation and getting stuck in the quagmire of negative thoughts, dust off those good intentions and give yourself another shot at making your resolutions stick.
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It’s only mid-January, but chances are pretty good that all those lofty resolutions you made before the clock struck midnight on Dec. 31 have fallen by the wayside. You’re not alone.
A small, but oft-cited, longitudinal study of New Year’s resolutions by John Norcross, a professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, revealed that nearly a quarter of people abandoned their goal after one week. That number swelled to 46 percent at a month and 64 percent after six months. Less than a fifth, 19 percent, were able to hang on for two years.
So instead of self-flagellation and getting stuck in the quagmire of negative thoughts, dust off those good intentions and give yourself another shot at making your resolutions stick.
Don’t make a backup plan (just yet).
You’ve likely heard that having a Plan B (or C or D) can be very helpful when dealing with unexpected contingencies. Being prepared for any bump in the road will make arriving at the destination unscathed and on time a sure thing, right?
Not so, according to new research from the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Jihae Shin, assistant professor of management and human resources at the school, together with Katherine L. Milkman of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted a series of experiments that challenged the conventional wisdom that holds backup plans in high regard.
Instead, their experiments revealed that when participants spent time plotting out a contingency plan, they failed to meet their goals. Of course, it’s important to note that these goals didn’t have anything to do with luck or innate skill, they required participants to do simple tasks including unscramble sentences. The same could be said for standard issue resolutions to get fit or save more money. They don’t rely on luck, only stick-to-itiveness.
The researchers do say that backup plans do have their place. The caveat: "You might want to wait until you have done everything you can to achieve your primary goal first," Shin said.
Trick yourself into changing.
Yet more counterintuitive research led by marketing professors from INSEAD, IE Business School, and Pamplin College of Business, finds that we humans actually want to change rather than keep the status quo.
Their study revealed that the brain is weighing how hard reaching the goal will be, and if it finds that it’s easy to reach, then it starts looking for reasons that getting there won’t happen. This ties into thousands of years of conditioning to be more sensitive to bad news versus good, a.k.a. the negativity bias.
The researchers also found that while participants scored a goal for potential challenges, they tended to score goals that took a modest effort as easier to reach than maintaining the status quo.
To trick your brain into achieving a goal, make sure what you want to achieve is manageable, or can be done through smaller, more consistent efforts. Instead of saying you want to be vice president of your division, for instance, make a plan to work on projects that will add to your professional standing and contribute to your organization’s bottom line.
What to do if you hit an “action crisis.”
"Setbacks present real challenges in pursuing our goals," said Richard Vann, assistant professor of marketing at Penn State Behrend. "When goals are blocked by obstacles, we often feel bad about ourselves and sometimes stop pursuing these goals."
When it comes to resolutions, there can be setbacks aplenty. However, there’s a technique you can employ to counteract the negative effects of roadblocks and challenges you may encounter on the path to keep your resolution.
It’s called “Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intention” and it comes to us courtesy of Gabriele Oettingen and Peter Gollwitzer, psychologists at NYU.
Basically, that’s a fancy way of saying that you need to think through what it would take to reach your goal and make yourself aware of the potential obstacles you’ll hit along the way. In this way, you’ll have a strategy in place to deal with potential setbacks in advance, rather than be blindsided and subsequently switch into evaluation mode (for example: Asking yourself, "Is this goal even worth it?") which doesn't help you get anywhere.
Just focus on one thing.
We humans tend to get ambitious when thinking about the possibility of a fresh start. Unfortunately, the “new year, new me” is just too big to be achievable. We can’t realistically get fit, stop smoking and save money while simultaneously sign up for more significant projects at work, get a mentor (or three) and build out a professional network.
That’s because we tend to make tradeoffs between goals when we have more than one or two.
Researchers from the University of Toronto found that having a single goal greased the wheels of progress for people by putting them into implementation mode. That happens even if the goal is deceptively simple, like saving money. Some participants in one of the study’s experiments were told to save money for their children’s education. For others, that goal was expanded to include saving for healthcare and for retirement. Those with the single focus were more successful than individuals who were trying to meet three separate objectives.
The researchers noted that while these experiments focused on financial matters, they believe the evidence suggests that setting a goal in any area (health, professional development, etc.) should be easier to achieve than if you’re scattering your energy on trying to make multiple resolutions come to fruition.
So if you find yourself among those who’ve abandoned their best intentions to become a better version of themselves in 2019, take heart. These strategies should get you back on track in no time.