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Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions (by Changing Them Completely)

It’s been two weeks since New Year’s Day–is anyone still keeping to their resolutions? Nearly half of all Americans make resolutions, but the number who are able to maintain their commitments dwindles as the year trudges onward. Past research has shown that a quarter of those sampled who made a resolution dropped it within the first week, and less than half still kept to their resolution after six months. Should those of us who dare to dream of self-change just throw our hands up and head for the chocolate?

Change is Easier when your Goals are Realistic

Maybe it’s time to redefine what we mean by “resolution.” Consider this factoid: according to modern theories of change, making a resolution means making repeated and modified attempts at change that eventually lead to success (Karoly & Anderson, 2000). True change can happen after recalibrating your original goals to keep them in line with reality and progress. Does your resolution seem unrealistic? Try breaking it down: even lofty goals often become manageable when broken down into smaller, realistic sub-goals. Or chuck the traditional idea of a resolution and opt for an “overall goal” approach. Often individuals play the shame game when they indulge just once, giving up and blaming themselves for their lack of resolve (instead of looking at the difficulty of abstinence). Modifying your strategies for realistic success will help keep you actively positioned toward your goal instead of falling back into a position of self-blame. If you do occasionally falter, you won’t view the whole operation as a failure and quit.

Reframe your Goals to increase Willpower

Research also shows that when you pair this active adjustment with positive thinking and reinforcement, you’re more likely to stick to your resolutions (Norcross, Mrykalo & Blagys, 2002). Reframing your goal as a series of positive milestones to meet instead of avoiding the negatives can keep you more motivated in the long run. For example, each week, instead of thinking, “I must not touch any sugar or skip the gym,” think of increasing your overall vegetable intake and minutes exercising. Need inspiration? When you can visualize success, you’re apt to have increased motivation, work harder, and ultimately perform better. Whether through more creative thinking, increased problem solving, or just the blood, sweat, and tears invested in the goal, creating a mental image of the future makes it seem more likely and helps to create a path to reality. Past research has shown that focusing on the process of achieving success (i.e., the steps you take to achieve a goal) as opposed to the desired outcome is more beneficial in increasing motivation (Pham & Taylor, 1999). In other words, if you want more money, imagine concrete steps you’d take in order to have it, as opposed to daydreaming wishfully about the fancy clothes and cars you’d buy. Also, imagining success is more likely to increase motivation when that imagined future is attainable, so imagining a corner office could make you work harder at your present job than, say, imagining yourself as a member of royalty (check your ancestry to be sure).

Visualize Success from the Third-Person POV

Noelia Vasquez and Roger Buehler offer this clever suggestion in their recent article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: make sure your point of view gives you a ringside seat to your success. They conducted three studies in which people visualized achievement of an important task from different points of view. Participants were to imagine themselves succeeding either from the first-person perspective (through their own eyes, as if the events were actually occurring) or the third-person perspective (seeing themselves and their surroundings as if they were observers of the situation). The researchers hypothesized that people who could see themselves succeed were able to highlight the broader meanings of the success and rewards they received. Sure enough, they found that images of success elicited higher levels of motivation when visualized from the third-person rather than the first-person perspective.

How does this apply to resolutions? First, don’t be pessimistic about your goals. It’s hard to be motivated when you’re already blaming or criticizing yourself or the achievement. Second, when you are daydreaming about a specific resolution, let’s say finding a relationship, don’t just fantasize about the outcome, but imagine the concrete steps it would take to get to success. Imagine these things as if you were watching a movie about someone finding love and you were that someone. In the movie, where are you looking for love (online perhaps? hint, hint)? How are you preparing yourself to be a good partner? Are you staying active in the dating world by being social, trying new activities, and asking out potential partners? Visualize your story with tangible, attainable details that push your movie forward. And for goodness sake, make it interesting, or else you’ll never want to do it in real life!

Further Reading:

Cochran, W., & Tesser, A. (1996). The “what-the-hell” effect: Some effects of goal proximity and goal framing on performance. In L.L. Martin &Tesser (eds.) Striving and feeling: Interactions among goals, affect, and self-regulation (p 99-120).

Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. Karoly, P., &Anderson, C.W. (2000). The long and short of psychological change: Toward a goal-centered understanding of treatment and durability and adaptive success. In C.R. Snyder &R.E. Ingram (Eds.), Handbook of psychological change: Psychotherapy processes and practices for the 21st century (p 154-176). New York: Wiley.

Norcross, J.C., Mrykalo, M.S., & Blagys, M.D. (2002). Auld lang syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes in New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58, 397-405.

Pham, L.B. & Taylor, S.E. (1999). From thought to action: Effects of process- versus outcome-based mental simulations on performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 98, 583-597.

Synder, C.R., Rand, K.L., King, E.A., Feldman, D.B., Woodward, J.T. (2002). “False” hope. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58, 1003-1022.

Vasquez, N. & Buehler, R (2007). Seeing future success: Does imagery perspective influence achievement motivation? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 1392-1405.