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Special edition: New Year's resolutions

New Year's resolutions got a bad rap... Less and less people are setting New Year’s resolutions (50% in 2021 ➡ 44% in 2022). Why? Because they are disappointed. Statistics are grim: Only 10% of people achieve their resolutions. Nearly half (47%) of all resolutions are broken within the first month. Primary reasons people fail to achieve their resolutions:

  • loss of motivation (48%)

  • not having a plan (30%)

  • lack of support (22%)

  • setting too many goals (19%)

  • setting overly ambitious goals (15%)

...but they can actually be very useful! The thing is that the New Year is actually a great time to set goals. In fact, every new start (start of a new week, month, year, semester, birthday, graduation, promotion, divorce, move to a new country etc.) is perceived as a clean slate. And when the slate is clean, people feel more compelled to conquer a challenge. Behavioral scientists call this the fresh start effect. So, since setting New Year’s resolutions make sense, is there a magic recipe for accomplishing them?

Let's find out.

What behavioral science can tell us about reaching our goals

Behavioral scientists have looked extensively into behavior change, habit formation and reaching goals. They came back with the following: The process you follow is more important than making the decision to change. In other words, it’s the way you approach your goals, not the goals themselves. Here’s what they mean:

Make sure the goal aligns with your priorities and values

When setting your goal, think of the top values in your life (what matters to you most). How can your resolution tie into these values? For example, if you are aiming to save more money, think in what ways your attempts can help serve those values such as providing for your family’s future or taking that exotic holiday.

Start from where you are, not where you want to be

You need to be realistic about how you will fit this change into your busy schedule. For your goal to succeed, the new behavior must become embedded into your routines, one step at a time. If getting fit is important to you, but you don’t enjoy going to the gym, perhaps starting an outdoors hobby, someplace convenient, is a more achievable intention. Start small, repeat, and take it from there.

Get specific about how you will reach your goal

Ever heard of implementation intention? It’s one of the ways presidential campaigners get citizens to go and vote. Having the intention to do something doesn’t mean you will act on it. It helps if you make a plan. So presidential campaigners phone people up and ask them if they will vote, at what time of the day, how will they get there, will they go alone or with someone else. These questions encourage people to actively think of the process and make a mental plan. In the same way, a goal of volunteering more needs to be accompanied by answers to questions like “When will I volunteer?”, “Where will I volunteer?”, “How will I get there?” “How many hours a week will I dedicate to volunteering?” Get into specifics!

Break it down into mini-goals

Wanting to volunteer for 200 hours a year seems daunting. Wherever will you find all that time... How about 4 hours per week? Does that sound more achievable? A recent paper showed that people not only stuck to their goal but actually dedicated more hours to volunteering when the goal was framed on weekly terms. So, if you’re looking to save up for a big vacation this year, telling yourself to save €5 a day will be more effective than reaching for €150 in savings a month, or €1800 per year, even if they equal the same amount. If you’re resolving to eat healthier, a first mini-goal could be to buy more fruits and vegetables. Second, try not to let these foods go bad. Next, prepare and consume those fruits and veggies three days a week, and build up from there.

Make your mini-goals fun and rewarding

Ever heard of temptation bundling? It’s about combining something you enjoy (a temptation) with something you need to do but don’t enjoy yet (a chore). By combining a temptation with a chore, over time, that chore becomes something that’s actually associated with pleasure and you start looking forward to it instead of dreading it. For example, saving your favorite podcast to savor while you’re on your self-imposed daily walk.

Make it social

Incorporating a social component not only makes your tasks more enjoyable, but having an accountability partner helps both of you achieve your goals. Also, surprise surprise, we are better at giving advice to others than to ourselves. So being there for someone who is working toward similar goals, can actually improve your own performance. Enlist a friend with a similar goal to share tips and solidarity — and to make a potential chore a social event.

Be prepared to mess up, because you will

There will be times where you will mess up or want to quit. How you deal with these times is all about the growth mindset. Everyone slips up and that’s ok. The key to goal achievement is persistence, not perfection. Embrace the rest days, the treats, catering to temptations. Use these moments to re-engage with your goal. Why did you make this resolution? Where do you want to be a year from now?

Take-aways for NY resolutions:

The process you follow is more important than making the decision to change. Focus on the process – it’s about forming a new habit, one day at a time. Make sure the goal aligns with who you are now (your values and priorities), and fits into (squeezes in) your pre-existing routines. For people with already limited time, this can be even more challenging. But it is achievable. Start small, be realistic, get specific, break it down, make it fun, make it social, be prepared to mess up. With these in mind, you are ready to take advantage of the fresh start effect and set your goals for 2023 – and achieve them!

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