Forget New Year’s resolutions.
Front-loading your year with a set of promises to improve is not a winning strategy. And it’s not because people aren’t capable of change, either. It’s that the psychology of the New Year’s resolution is not compatible with the way people make difficult transitions:
- It happens immediately following the holidays, when people are re-entering a regular work routine, may have just had emotionally charged family gatherings, and likely gained a few pounds from uncharacteristic eating and drinking.
- It happens during a time of year that for many of us is cold and dark.
- The focus on making the new year a good one may lead people to craft overly lofty or unwieldy resolutions that are difficult to achieve.
From research on habit formation, motivational design, and willpower, we can extract a few characteristics of resolutions that work. They are:
- Small steps that incrementally progress a person toward a goal. Each step should be achievable, even if it’s challenging.
- One (or maybe two) small steps at a time. Willpower suggests that we will fail if we try too many challenges at once. Prioritize them and tackle them a few at a time. All of those challenges associated with January 1, like the return to work, the lousy weather, and the aftermath of holiday drama, are factors that will limit your ability to tackle new tasks, so keep that in mind.
- Maintaining focus on the overall goal. The small steps are meaningful in the context of what you’re really hoping to achieve, so find a way to remind yourself of what you’re really working toward.
- Allowing progress tracking along the way. Whether this is continual progress (like weight loss or activity achievements) or checking a box next to an accomplishment (running a race, having a baby), some mechanism for showing yourself that you’re getting nearer your goal is important.
With that in mind, here are some alternatives to New Year’s Resolutions:
- The Quarterly Awesome. This was my system for 2014. Instead of having one or two big New Year’s resolutions, I decided to do something awesome every quarter of the year. Leaving it loosely defined like this has kept me scanning the environment for opportunities to do something special and memorable, regardless of the time of year.
- Mind, Body, Soul. This system was introduced in my office. Participants are asked to pick a goal fitting into each of the categories of mind, body, and soul to work on throughout the year. Similar to the quarterly system, this emphasizes spreading accomplishments throughout the year, and also prompts people to look for different types of goals to work on.
- Make today your January 1. Pick a different day, a day that is at a low-stress time of year for you, to be the first day of your new year. This will better help you focus on behavior change without the start-of-year distractions.
What other strategies have you tried to make resolutions stick? How do you kick-start behavior change?