SINGAPORE: The New Year is a transition when we close an old chapter of our lives and open a new one with celebration and hope. Like part of a yearly ritual, New Year’s resolutions are made with renewed vigour.
But hampered by old habits and routines, many people often give up within weeks. Is there much point to New Year resolutions? Or a better question to ask is: How can we better achieve our goals?
Before I studied motivational science, my New Year’s resolutions were hastily made and rarely seen through. One year, for example, my goal to improve my diet lasted exactly 7 minutes - right until I drove past McDonalds, where I sheepishly pulled into the drive-through.
But I am not alone. A survey of Americans found that only 8 per cent of people achieve their New Year’s resolutions. People hold high aspirations for themselves, but they often have difficulty starting on their goals, persisting for long enough, or using effective strategies to succeed.
Behaviour change is easier said than done.
The good news is there are principles psychological science shows can increase anyone’s success rate at achieving their goals.
The first problem is people do not articulate purposeful goals that intrinsically motivate themselves. Psychologically, people prefer to save their mental energy as much as possible. But without well-articulated goals that are purpose-driven, people feel little internal drive to work towards their own resolutions.
Goals need to be purposeful. Psychologists advise that, rather than just aspire “to quit smoking”, our goals would be much more powerful if we tied it to a purpose that is personally valued – for example, “I want to stop smoking next year for the sake of my children’s health”. These purpose-laden goals are motivationally gripping and well-aligned with what we hold dear.
As you set your goals this year, ask yourself: Why do you want to achieve this particular goal? What do you value? How can you tie your goal to a cause that is important to you?
Often, we are resolute when setting our goals, only to forget them amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It is easier to fall back into our ingrained habits and routines than to continually resolve against them.
It is no wonder that new resolutions are so easily broken. Who has the mental capacity to focus on their new goals all the time?
That, in fact, is what plans are for. Pursuing our goals does not have to be mentally taxing if we frame our plans right.
Whereas the most heroic goals sound broad and abstract, plans need to be concrete and procedural.
Rather than promise, “I will exercise in the morning every day”, commit to yourself: “As soon as my alarm rings, I will do thirty sit-ups”.
Instead of saying: “I want to be less distracted when I’m working”, resolve instead: “When I sit down at my desk to work, I will silence my cell phone”.
This planning strategy is what NYU Psychologist Peter Gollwitzer terms “if-then” plans, which specify the situation (“if”) and describe the desired action (“then”). When people commit to concrete if-then plans, they create a mental association between the situational trigger and their desired behaviour. Whenever they encounter the trigger, their desired behaviour will be automatically activated in their minds.
For as long as I can remember, my aunt has been on a quest to lose weight. During our family dinners, she would order vegetarian options and resolutely turn down second helpings. But twenty years later, she was still no slimmer. How could this be?
To everyone but herself, the reason was obvious. She kept a stash of snacks at home, which she would fish out every day when watching television. My aunt had inadvertently set up her home environment for failure.
Evidently, good goals and plans are not enough for success. We also need to be keenly aware of the way our environments are structured to facilitate or hinder our goals.
Psychologists emphasise that the easiest ways to exert self-control are by selecting our situations wisely and by structuring our situations to help ourselves. We should avoid situations that trigger undesirable behaviours - such as avoiding bars and clubs for people who want to drink less - and revamp our environments to reduce temptation - in my aunt’s case, to remove all snacks from the house.
Consider your own home, work, and leisure environments. How can they be chosen and structured to help you achieve your goals?
MOMENTS OF SETBACKS
The road to success is not always smooth-sailing. People periodically slip up, caving in to that one more chocolate cake or cigarette.
Setbacks happen to anybody and everybody. What matters is not a one-hundred-percent golden track record, but whether you see it as a temporary setback or consider it a sign that you are a permanent failure.
At the start of the year, my friend resolved to look like Korean popstar Taeyeon of the famed Girls Generation. Just three months later, she declared: “Being fat is in my DNA. I can never become slim. I will forever stay fat.”
When weeks roll by and we seem no closer to our goals, it is tempting to think that our weaknesses are inborn, set in stone, and unalterable for life.
But in fact, it is the opposite mindset that is key to perseverance and eventual success. People who bounce back from poor performance, break ups, and dietary setbacks, tend to hold a strong belief that their intelligence, relationships, and weight, can change over time.
This is what Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck terms a “growth mindset”. Believing that something is fixed takes it out of our control, but seeing our attributes as malleable offers us the opportunity to work on improving them.
Take a moment to consider what mindsets you hold. Are your mindsets facilitating your achievement or sabotaging your motivation?
Anyone can set New Year’s resolutions, but it takes more to see them through. As you think through this year’s goals, try to incorporate your values into your goals, design if-then plans, structure conducive environments, and adopt a growth mindset to motivate yourself.
Success, after all, lies not in the act of setting the goal, but in how it is made and executed.
Patricia Chen is an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Psychology who thanks her student Jessica Ng for her contributions to this piece.