Reinforcing your resolve

January 3, 2017

How to keep your New Year’s resolutions from backfiring and set yourself up for success


When pollster Ipsos asked Canadians about their New Year’s resolutions in late 2016, the results were lacklustre. Only one in every three of us bothers to make one, and of those, about a quarter believe they will lose their resolve in less than six months.

That less-than-stellar success rate might have you thinking that resolutions aren’t worth the breath used to make them, but Russ Powell, associate professor of Psychology, says that making a resolution for January 1 can actually be helpful.

New Year’s offers a “bright boundary”—a clear point in time and the beginning of a whole year of possibilities. “That’s a good thing,” says Russ. “New Year’s is a special day, and clearly marking the beginning of a behaviour change can be helpful.”

So why the lack of success?

“When we make a resolution, what we really want to do is to manage or change our behaviour—and most people don’t really know how to do that,” says Russ.

I fear also that some people have made resolutions so often and failed that they believe resolving to do anything is like a cue for failure, and that’s really a shame.

So what would a behaviourist like Russ suggest when it comes to making better resolutions and sticking to them?

1. Forget about willpower

If you think your lack of willpower is holding you back, Russ says to think again.

“There’s a popular notion that we have this internal energy that we can draw upon to resist temptation as we work toward a goal,” says Russ. “That model of willpower has become very popular during the past 10 or 15 years, but the research behind it is increasingly being called into question.”

Russ says that instead of relying on willpower, you’re better off assuming you don’t have much of it at all.

“For most of us, the worst thing we can do when it comes to trying to control our behaviour is to just make up our mind, grit our teeth and tell ourselves that this time it’s going to happen for sure,” he says. “It is the case that some people have strong say-do correspondence—when they say they will do something, they follow through come hell or high water—but they are few and far between. For most people, it just doesn’t work.”

You can still promise to make a change, says Russ, but that’s just the beginning. After that, you need to be strategic.

2. Manage your environment

Behaviourists, like Russ, strongly believe that the environment around us influences our behaviour. When you’re trying to make a change, he suggests using a very basic strategy: alter your environment in ways that support the change you’re trying to make.

That could involve anything from posting reminders and arranging incentives for yourself, to clearing your house or work area of temptations and distractions that could derail your resolution.

3. Experiment

“The more strategic you are, the better chance you have of carrying through on whatever plan you have,” says Russ. “Think of it like solving a puzzle or doing an experiment. You need to figure out a solution. You need to try different approaches to see what works. And what works for you may be quite different from what works for someone else.”

4. Trade fuzzy goals for concrete resolutions

According to a Ipsos poll in late 2015, the resolutions Canadians choose to make are often a bit wishy-washy. Russ says that resolving to ”be true to oneself,” “focus on the positive” or “live a healthier lifestyle” are easy to make—and easy to break.

“You can make a resolution like that without really tracking things, and without actually committing yourself to anything,” says Russ. “We’re more committed with resolutions that are concrete.”

Along the same lines, focus your resolutions on the behaviour you want to change—not the result you’re looking for. For example, Russ suggests focusing eating healthy foods instead of losing weight, or exercising three times a week rather than “getting in shape.”

5. Plan to fail

Whatever your resolution, it’s almost inevitable that at some point you’re going to have trouble keeping it. If you go in believing anything else, Russ says you’re setting yourself up to fail.

“Almost everybody is going to have a lapse,” he says. “It’s how you deal with the lapses that determines whether you’re going to be successful.”

While eating that cookie or missing a workout might feel like the end of the road for your resolution, Russ says that’s actually when your program begins. Being proactive is the key. Make a plan for what you’re going to do when you next run into difficulty, and figure out how you’re going to respond to that internal voice that will inevitably call on you to give in.

Russ says it’s almost as though each of us is actually two different people: a rational you (Dr. Jekyll) who exists in the present and has long-term goals and aspirations, and an impulsive you (Mr. Hyde) who pops up in the future and repeatedly undermines your plans.

“Effective self-control involves learning how to minimize the number of times Mr. Hyde is likely to appear and, when he does appear, to convince him to behave at least somewhat rationally,” he says.

Doing that means you need to be proactive and have plan in place—ask someone ahead of time to make sure you don’t dig into the dessert tray or arrange to have a healthy snack at home that you can partake of instead.

Most importantly, don’t give up when the inevitable lapse happens.

“A lapse is an opportunity to think about what went wrong, what led to the lapse and what you could do differently,” says Russ. “It’s a chance to reflect and then get back on track.”

6. Find the right motivation

Finding the right consequence when things do fall off the rails is another important strategy in self-control.

Tapping into the right social contingency—especially one that involves our ability to feel guilty about things (in a good way)—can make a big difference.

Russ uses the example of an honours student he worked with a few years ago who had repeatedly failed in her attempts to stop smoking. He suggested she send him an email at the end of every day to let him know if she had smoked or not.

“She said, I’d hate it if I had to tell you that I smoked,” says Russ. “And I said, ‘That’s perfect.’”

For the next several months, she sent Russ a message each day. If she hadn’t smoked, he would reply with a little smiley face. If she had, she got a frown. She was surprised at how quickly it reduced her desire to smoke.

When the inevitable lapse did occur, she was mortified. But Russ simply pointed out how successful she had been to that point and suggested a few tactics she might try the next time.

“She wasn’t really physically addicted,” says Russ. “All she needed was a minor intervention, and that can work in many situations. Find the right diet plan, workout schedule or social contingencies, and what seems like a major problem might become surprisingly manageable.”

That isn’t to say that self-control is easy. Russ says that like everything else in life, learning to manage our behaviour is a work in progress. The solution, however, isn’t in trying to dredge up more willpower, but in being persistent and finding the strategies and tactics that work for you.

Knowing how to manage your own behaviour is a valuable skill, and one that Russ says should be better taught in the school system.

“Many students enter university without those skills and suffer as a result,” he says. “I used to think that if children all learned how to read, write and do arithmetic in school, then they could do almost anything. Now, I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to be able to do all those things and self-regulate our behaviour.”


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