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The Power of Habit: How to Succeed at Keeping Your New Year’s Resolutions

We’re two weeks into the new year – have you already abandoned your New Year’s resolutions? Don’t worry, you’re not alone – and it’s not too late to recommit to your resolutions, particularly if they mean living a healthier life, living more consistent with your values, and/or improving your performance in work. In this blog, we’ll explore some of the common reasons that people fail to achieve their goals and look at some strategies you can employ to increase your chances for success in following through on your New Year’s resolutions.

At the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development, we believe in turning research into action. We want to use the knowledge and information we’re creating to help people in our communities enact positive change in their lives. As a social scientist who focuses on behavior change, I help combine research and practice, studying why people succeed or fail at their goals, and then creating tools and interventions that can help.

Be Ambitious Yet Realistic

When you set goals, being realistic beats being overly ambitious every time. It’s much easier to start small then scale up as you gain momentum. Select a goal that is feasible and within reach given your current life circumstances. For example, imagine that I want to go to the gym five days a week, but I live in a rural area which requires a lengthy drive to the gym. To make matters more difficult, I’m currently experiencing financial difficulties and a gym membership is an added strain on my budget.

Ask yourself, “Given similar circumstances, do you think a reasonably motivated person would be able to accomplish and sustain that resolution?” If the answer is “no,” you need to alter your plan.

In the example above, it would be wise to realize that the gym might be a barrier to your success and look online for exercise routines you can do at home with minimal equipment. Establishing a routine of working out and then increasing towards five days a week, may provide for a more reasonable approach to getting started. Instead of attempting to adopt an overly complex or rigid diet, try something more specific, like cutting out sugar and soda.

Align Your Goals with Your Values

It’s important that your goals are consistent with your values. Before setting a goal, clarify your values and how your goals can help you be the person, parent, worker or spouse you want to be. Science shows that connecting goals to values can be a powerful source of motivation, making it more likely that you’ll follow through. Once established, taking brief moments to reflect on values-based goals can help one stay connected to ‘why’ they are making the change and problem-solve barriers that interfere with making the change.

The Pitfalls of Visualizing Success

We’re often told to visualize our goals, as if you think hard enough about it, the universe will realign itself to make it happen for you. If your New Year’s resolution is to exercise, you should visualize yourself on the beach with your newly fit body. This seems to make sense. We need motivation for change, so picturing the results of our efforts ought to inspire us.

Studies show that this isn’t necessarily true. There’s a counterintuitive effect: when you visualize your goals, many people experience the emotional and mental benefits as if they’ve achieved the outcome, which reduces motivation. By visualizing, you feel as though you’ve already lost the pounds, kicked smoking or cut down on your drinking. This gives you more freedom to bend the rules or splurge a little because you’re convinced that you will eventually be successful. Because of this, we find that visualization makes people less likely to achieve their goals. That being said, more critical forms of visualization can work, in which potential negative obstacles and barriers that could stand in the way of achieving the goal are considered.

Practice “WOOP” to Create a Plan for Dealing with Obstacles

In behavioral psychology, there’s a concept called the “internal locus of control.” This means encouraging people to see the barriers to their success as internal, rather than external and out of their control. When you’re trying to accomplish anything in life, there will be roadblocks. The important thing is to realize that it’s your internal reactions and emotions created by those roadblocks that may represent the biggest barriers to your success.

Psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, a professor at New York University and one of the leaders in studying motivation, has created a framework called “WOOP” that helps people create a plan for dealing with adversity.

Wish: Develop a wish or want that is attainable that you can achieve within a reasonable amount of time.

Outcomes: Imagine the outcome and how it could make you feel to achieve your goal.

Obstacle: Identify the obstacles, barrier, thoughts or feelings that will get in the way of your success

Plan: Develop an individualized, specific “if/then” plan to deal with these obstacles. Identify the cues that might lead you astray and develop a strategy for dealing with them.

Redesign Your Environment with Healthy Cues

We are products of our environment, and the behavioral cues around us have a powerful effect. As humans, we tend to seek pleasure and avoid discomfort. If surrounded by unhealthy cues, we’re likely to fall back into our old habit no matter how hard we try. If you’re trying to eat healthy, purge your shelves of junk food and stock up on fruits, vegetables and healthy snacks. If you want to cut down on drinking, throw the beer out of the refrigerator and avoid situations in which you will be likely to drink. If you want to go to bed earlier to get better rest and watching TV late into the night is what is keeping you from accomplishing that, then remove the TV from the bedroom or cancel the cable subscription. As long as the environment has all the cues and temptations to engage in the old habit, you are going to have a more difficult time moving over to the new behavior or habit. The goal is to cultivate healthy behaviors by creating an environment that encourages better choices and minimizes alternative choices.

Accept Failure as Part of the Process and Persist On

When you’re trying to commit to change, failure is not the end of your progress; it’s part of the change process. It’s very likely that you will relapse into your old behaviors or habits at some point. However, that doesn’t have to mean the end of your journey to change. Just recognize that you’ve slipped, recommit to your goal and go back to the process. Don’t let self-doubt turn one small slip into an abandoned resolution. Remind yourself that to learn or change anything requires being able to stick with something, and as you stick with it, things become more automatic and easier to do. So, stick with your goal and keep persisting despite setbacks that come along the way.

Team Up

People tend to gravitate towards the behaviors and norms of their peer group. Peer accountability and social support groups can be powerful tools in reinforcing and supporting the change process. Try to find a partner or a group of people who are working towards the same goal that you are to be a support system – and who hold you accountable when you falter. Although nothing will beat face-to-face interaction, with the advent of social media outlets, finding peer groups for social support and accountability are more readily accessible than ever before.

Be Positive

It’s the end of the second week of January, a time when many New Year’s resolutions that include meaningful personal goals start to fall by the wayside. If you stumbled in achieving, or already abandoned, your goals for 2017, it’s not too late. By using some of the tools and tips in this article, you can get back on the path to positive change.

Clayton Cook

About the Author

Clayton Cook

  • Associate Professor
  • Department of Educational Psychology
  • College of Education and Human Development
  • University of Minnesota

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One thought on “The Power of Habit: How to Succeed at Keeping Your New Year’s Resolutions”

  1. Kristina says:

    Just wanted to give you a heads up that your blog has been featured in a recent article named: Top 50 Health and Fitness College Blogs To Follow in 2017.

    Here’s a link to the article:
    http://www.fittous.com/top-health-fitness-college-blogs/

    I hope your inclusion in the list drives some new readers to your blog.
    Congratulations and keep up the awesome work!

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