How to Succeed at New Year’s Resolutions
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At or around this time of year, many people make one or more ‘resolutions’ for the upcoming year (or next few months). Many of these people ‘fail’ to adhere to these resolutions enough that they feel completely satisfied with their efforts. This article is a psychological ‘how to’ guide, to help you, dear reader to stop failing at your new year’s resolutions – or indeed any resolution you put your mind to.
I will commence with some general information – all fairly standard ‘psychology 101’ and then look at 3 specific examples of common resolutions. I will aim to give you practical information that can help where psychology text books fall short.
Overall Goal AKA ‘Macro Goal’
Most people do not set specific goals. Instead, they generalise, using vague qualifiers like “more” or “less”, when they should be getting right down to the nut and bolts of what they want to achieve. An example of this would be “I want to lose weight this year” or “I want to learn new skills this year”. That is about as unspecific as you can get, with zero reference points or measurable goals. No wonder you won’t get there... if you don’t declare your final destination.
Goals should be clearly defined such as “I want to lose 3 stones in weight in the next 9 months”. Or “I want to get an average of 63% across the board in all my coursework and exams this summer”. Another example of relatively specific goal-setting might be “I want to learn a new skill that will amuse and impress my children and their friends”. OK so that last resolution is my own and it is actually set for a few years from now, but you get the point.
Any goal must be realistic and achievable. No point setting yourself unattainable goals. You can only fail... and that will eat away at your self-esteem. Of course, there are some people who subconsciously set themselves up for failure, probably due to horrendously low self-esteem, or poor self-worth, or perhaps conditioning from awful teachers, etc. Don’t be one of them!
Is your goal, congruent with your interests and ideals? No point setting a goal to achieve something that has no real benefit or carryover to either your life or your spirit. An example might be trying to develop a six-pack (or even learn the violin), just because you think women might be impressed. Well OK, if you are a virgin you might be sufficiently motivated, but for the rest of us, motivation only comes – in a positive sense – from things we desire internally.
BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF – do you really want this? Or are you being ‘pushed’ by others? If you are being pushed, you can still win, but you will have to set your sights a bit lower in my experience, if you want to achieve a ‘workable compromise’. For example, your significant other really wishes “you’d be a bit tidier about the house”. It can be done, but you’ll have to work harder to motivate yourself, as it’s not an intrinsic goal for YOU.
Break your main goals down into bite sized chunks AKA ‘meso goals’.
This is super-critical. Every journey begins with a single step and proceeds only by making more steps, preferably in a regular and consistent manner. Taking the analogy further; if you had to journey to Milan, you wouldn’t get out a map and despair and moan about how far it is and how you don’t like Italian food, etc. No, you first of all decide HOW you want to get there (plane/coach/train/car) based upon factors like cost and availability. Then you look around for the method of travel that suits YOU best – maybe you get seasick for example. Then you plan the timetable and then you purchase the tickets. Then you begin your journey. Before you know it you have arrived at exactly where you intended. BUT, realistically you are only going to attempt the journey if it means something to you, i.e. YOU gain something from the journey, like attending a friend’s wedding or hitting the best designer shops, etc.
And so it is with any goal or resolution that you set yourself. There are many ways to skin a cat and so there are many ways to achieve a goal – but do not let yourself become paralysed by the endless options available to you. ALWAY K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid). However the most important ingredient is... dedication and consistency. Without these, you are unlikely to succeed. So: make each bite sized chunk small enough to chew... if you see what I mean. Don’t say “I will lose 1 stone of weight each month” or “I will study 20 extra hours each week until my exams”. Instead, break it down until you reach a point where you don’t feel daunted by the ‘meso goal’ any more. A series of undaunting steps can eventually lead you into the stratosphere... if you keep at the journey long enough. “I will study for 40 minutes before university and for 60 minutes after, each day, until my exams”, would be better – but it is appropriate for YOU. Try to mould your goals around your existing lifestyle, rather than upsetting your routine to the point where you are just chasing your own tail.
If you practice something long enough, then you will eventually make it habit... and then you can’t really fail because your subconscious is aligned (through simple force of repetition) with you and your conscious goals. Speaking of your subconscious...
The subconscious brain drives your actions FAR more than you might think. If you want to ‘win’, then you NEED your subconscious to help you, not fight you.
This is another hugely powerful tool towards resolution success! Once you see it, smell it and hold it in your hands, in your mind’s eye (whether it be a number on a weigh-scale, or an exam result sheet, or a new skill you want to master) and appreciate all the glorious feelings you will generate internally when you get it for real, you are sending a vital message to your subconscious.
Write your goals (both macro and meso) down in large letters and post them somewhere you will see them regularly. Every time you see them, your subconscious will be reminded that THIS is what YOU want.
A video log might be a good idea – as long as it’s not going to take vital time away from the actual goal achievement process.
Personally I do feel a little bit daft, talking to myself in a loud and commanding voice, repeating a few simple sentences over and over again. But it does work. Try it.
You MUST reward yourself throughout the process, because it reinforces your successes in a mental framework that helps drive you on towards the next success (and therefore reward). Obviously there would be no point if the rewards were completely sabotaging to your goals i.e., an alcoholic doesn’t reward themselves with a bottle of whisky when they reach 30 days sober. And so it should be with you. Instead, try to find a reward that is congruent with your goal. If you are losing weight, maybe treat yourself to a sunbed or mini-make over when you achieve a certain goal. If extra studying is going to plan, then reward yourself with a night at the cinema or perhaps that new notepad computer you’ve been thinking about.
All too often I see people ignoring their successes and only focussing on their failure (or lack of success) instead. This is a very negative process and can be a hindrance in the long term, despite you thinking that if you just push on regardless, you’ll get there in the end. Well... maybe you will, but life is (in my opinion) mostly about the journey and not the destination, so... HAVE SOME FUN.
OK now I will create three imaginary (but all too ‘real’ or common) ‘resolutions’ or goals and will endeavour to show you how to ‘reformat yourself’ (and the goal) into a winning force.
Example 1: “I want to get more exercise”.
- WHY!?! You MUST identify your motivational factors. Are they internal (e.g. “I hate struggling up stairs”) or external (e.g. “girls like six-packs”). This will play a huge part in your overall success or failure. Internal goals will ALWAYS trump external ones.
- Define ‘more’. Be specific and realistic. Know that there is an optimum amount of exercise each individual can tolerate, based upon history and conditioning. More exercise is not necessarily ‘better’. Don’t overdo it. Better to exercise correctly than stubbornly. If you just want to be healthy, then you need far less intensive or time-consuming exercise than the elite athlete. If you work from home then you have a different amount of time potentially available than someone who commutes to work and back each day.
- Set your meso goals and formulate your ‘plan’ based upon them. For example, if you decide your meso goal is “2 x 30 minute weight sessions and 2 x 30 minute cardio sessions each week, at the gym” then write down specifically how you plan to modify your daily routine to achieve this. Will you have to pack a gym bag before work? How about planning a different route from work? Have you informed your significant other that you might be late on certain nights of the week? How does this fit in with your children? Etc. The secret is to eliminate all hurdles ahead of time. Obviously no-one can foresee the unforeseen, but aside from ‘hiccups’ there should be no excuses – IF you take your time to plan ahead.
- Track your failures (and successes) and analyse why you might be failing (if you are) and what you might do to reverse the situation. Do not procrastinate. Fix problems NOW, or before you know it, habit and time will have robbed you of your possible victory. An example might be substituting one 30 minute gym session for 30 minutes of jogging with the dog, because you have a responsibility that cannot be ignored. Or perhaps you have to combine 2 of the 30 minute sessions into one 60 minute session, due to other lifestyle constraints.
- Remember that the most successful plan can be altered at a moment’s notice – if that is GENUINELY what is required and not because you feel lazy today!!!
- REWARD yourself when your plan tells you to. Don’t overlook it and think “I’ll do it next week”. It is too late by then and all you are doing is messing up your plan and for what? Because you were to ‘busy’ to treat yourself to something nice??? Don’t be daft.
Example 2: “I want to eat less crap”
- Again... WHY?!?! Internal goals or external...?
- Define ‘crap’ – I assume you mean chocolate and sweets but for some folks who already don’t eat sugar etc then this could mean wheat, gluten and/or dairy. You have to decide specifically what YOU mean by ‘crap’... or it will slip through the net as “ohhh, this isn’t too bad... I’ll just have one per week”. BE SPECIFIC.
- Define ‘less’. Are you going to eat absolutely as little of XXX as you can, or are you just going to “cut out cakes during the week”. It’s up to YOU what level you deem appropriate, but WRITE IT DOWN... and stick to it.
- Set a timescale. No one wants to envisage a life bereft of ‘treats’, so set yourself a manageable period for your macro-goal, say 2 months (3 would be better, but you get my point).
- Be aware that if you cut any major nutrient group out or reduce it significantly, you will need to replace it with something else, at least initially, to prevent feelings of hunger and weakness. Don’t just replace one crap thing (e.g. cake) with another crap thing (e.g. bread) and feel virtuous. If you want to feel healthier/sharper/ more vital, then you need to be fairly clued up. I suggest reading ‘The Ultramind Solution’ By Dr Mark Hyman.
- CLEAN OUT YOUR CUPBOARDS – of ‘crap’... and don’t buy any more until your time is up.
- PLAN – what are you going to buy at the supermarket? What are you going to prepare for lunch at work? What about looking for some simple, tasty, health recipes on line? I make a really nice chicken stew that lasts me for 3 days. Cheap, nutritious and convenient. You should do something similar.
- HABIT – if you practice this series of good nutritional habits for long enough, they become second nature and you probably won’t enjoy the ‘crap’ as you once did. At this point, success has happened because it is no longer a ‘chore’ to shop and eat healthier.
Example 3: “I want to learn a new skill”
This is a very non-specific goal, however the way it is phrased, suggests a deeply intrinsic level of motivation. Actually, this is MY goal or resolution, though it is not ‘due’ for 3-5 years yet. Let me explain... My wife and I are soon to have our first child. I personally believe that it is better to be respected than feared, so my plan to ensure my child’s willing participation in its own upbringing, is to be a ‘cool dad’. This should ensure that both my child and his friends respect me, listen to me and obey me. Thinking ahead, I realised that magic (simple card tricks and sleight of hand) could be the key to solving this issue. So I plan on learning enough over the next few years, to be able to amuse and surprise my son and his friends. How do I myself plan on attaining this goal?
- First I will search out a professional tutor and audition him/her to make sure that our personality type’s mesh and that he/she is as good a tutor as I am a student.
- Discuss with the tutor precisely what tricks or aspects of magic are going to be relatively easy to learn (for a 40 yr old geezer with huge hands), yet still have sufficient ‘wow’ factor.
- Work through each trick or game with the tutor, preferably taking notes and/or video clips (if they will allow it).
- PRACTICE! They say that “practice makes perfect”. This is of course NOT true. Only perfect practice will make you perfect. Practicing something wrongly will just ingrain the incorrect motor engrams into your hard wiring. So GET IT RIGHT before you practice!
- Figure out some sort of simple magic routine that I can just ‘step into’ whenever I happen to have an audience and a pack of cards or a few coins etc. It needs to look natural, and not forced, if you really want to impress folks (especially children who are the harshest critics of all).
- SET measurable, attainable overall (macro) goals
- BREAK each goal down into smaller (meso) goals
- WRITE THEM DOWN and look at them often for reinforcement
- DO WHAT IT SAYS on your plan – but be flexible
- ALLY your conscious and subconscious minds together using the tips above
- REWARD yourself as you attain each ‘success point’