New Year’s resolutions are easy; behavior change, not so much

New Year’s resolutions are easy; behavior change, not so much

By David W. Hart, Ph.D.


With 2020 on the horizon you may be plotting a new you for the New Year.  This is the time many of us begin to vision our goals to better ourselves, our families, and our communities.  You may set an intention to move your body more, limit your sugar and processed carb intake, or cut down on your screen time.  The possibilities are endless on the buffet of self-improvement.


Unlimited possibilities, though, can be overwhelming.  It’s no secret that the majority of those who set resolutions for the New Year are unlikely to meet their goal.  According the US News and World Report, 80% of resolutions flop by mid-February.  Psychologists have several hypotheses as to why resolutions are such giant bombs for the vast majority, including unrealistic goals, ambivalence, and lack of motivation, to name a few.


As a clinician who identifies with the movement in positive psychology, I’m eternally curious about the 20% of individuals who are able to manifest their resolutions.  What’s their secret?  What do they do differently, and more effectively, than the rest of us?  And most importantly, can we recreate the recipe for success in our own behavior change plan?  The answer is a resounding, “yes, ma’am”!


Don’t bite off more than you can chew


Americans are known for their sky is the limit mentality.  We shoot for the stars and when the conditions are right the historical narrative has indicated victory.  This cultural tradition is likely projected onto our own goals.  But do big dreams equal big success? The answer is: it depends.  Goal achievement is more likely when you’re SMART about it; that is, when your goals are: (S)trategic; (M)easureable; (A)ttainable; (R)ealistic; and (T)ime-sensitive.


Let’s dissect a resolution that one of my clients set for himself at the beginning of 2019 to illustrate the SMART goal concept.  His intention was to move his body more and lose 15lbs within the first six months of the year.  The original goal was time sensitive (6 months of the New Year) and measurable (15lbs).  The goal was also strategic (his body mass index score was on the verge of obesity) and likely attainable.  But was the timeline realistic in the context of some of the obstacles he was facing at that moment in his life, including a pending knee surgery and a so-called addiction to anything sweet?  The answer is: probably not.  My job was to help him go back to the drawing board and design a plan that would break his larger resolution into smaller SMART goals, including devising a strategy to manage some of the obstacles to making his resolution a reality (e.g., working around hurt knee and accounting for eating habits).


Never underestimate the power of ambivalence


There’s a reason that 80% of resolutions never see the full light of day: ambivalence.  It’s that feeling captured in the sound of “meh” – a lack of enthusiasm or interest in the goal in front of us.  I teach a course in addictions counseling and each semester my students are required to engage in a behavior change plan to build empathy for clients experiencing a substance or behavioral addiction.  Change plans frequently include increasing exercise and decreasing sugar intake or screen time.  Ninety percent of my students often fail to reach their change objectives.  Why?  Because the assignment, and the subsequent grade, are simply not enough of a motivating factor to break through the ambivalence.  Ask yourself: on a scale of 1-10 (10 being highly motivated to accomplish the goal), how would I rate my motivation?  If you’re under a 6 or 7 you’re likely more ambivalent than motivated.  Another helpful technique is to ask yourself: what motivated me to pick a 7 and not a 6?  This question will help you to identify the carrot(s) that might pull you closer to the finish line.


Plan for obstacles


Lastly, it’s critical to plan for potential obstacles that you might face.  Scheduling a new behavior is often the first step in the change process.  For instance, if you intend to modify your diet by preparing healthier meals, you would likely need to allocate time to find recipes, cultivate a grocery list, shop, and finally prepare the meal(s).  Suddenly changing your diet doesn’t appear as easy.  Also, share your goals with others.  Find an accountability buddy or buddies. Better yet, find a group of people who have similar goals.


Want to be in the 20% in 2020?  Join me for a workshop I’m calling “Resolution Revolution: Motivated Goal Setting for 2020” on Tuesday, January 21st at 12pm.  To register, you may call (760) 284-1617.



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