New Year, New You. Or not. The Science Behind Motivation & New Year’s Resolutions

Two years ago I realized that I wasn’t reading for pleasure anymore. As a 24/25 year old that isn’t so crazy. You get bogged down with school and work and you stop having time to read. At least that’s what I kept telling myself. Really it was just easier to sit on the couch and watch re-runs of Friends on Netflix while scrolling through Facebook on my phone. There is so much stimulation surrounding us that the idea of sitting in a room in silence reading, despite me knowing that I will inevitably enjoy it, is a little stressful.

books-ive-read

It just so happened that this revelation happened at the same time as I was visiting friends in Toronto and came home with 4 recommended books that helped me make a new resolution – to read more, and enjoy reading again. I was successful; I read a lot more and enjoyed it more than the few years before that, but I still wasn’t choosing to read over watching tv, like I would as a kid. So, at the end of 2015 my new resolution was to not only read more, but to write down everything I read to give myself that accountability and motivation I needed. As a result, last year I read 20 books that I thoroughly enjoyed, and my goal this year is 30.

This is only one of the few times that I’ve had success with a resolution; in fact the only other one I remember accomplishing is “learn to like drinking water”, which (1) yes I did not like the taste of water, and (2) I love it now (I know it’s strange). So what makes a resolution likely to be successful? Is it possible to really be a “happier and healthier you” in 2017?

A study conducted by Marlatt & Kaplan in 1972 focussed on the ability for self-initiated plans (i.e. New Year’s Resolutions) to change behaviour and how external monitoring of these plans (i.e. the researchers checking in) would effect these goals. The researchers provided questionnaires to students at the University of Minnesota and grouped them into (1) resolutions to lose weight, or (2) other resolutions. Since weight measurement could be objective, the researchers divided this group into a monitored group, which included weigh-ins over a 12-week period, or non-monitored. After 12 weeks there was no significant change in mean body weight, regardless of whether the subject was monitored at all. For the non weight-based resolutions, after a 3 month period, 75% of resolutions were kept. But as this was a self-reported questionnaire, were they really? In addition, they found that the bulk of failed resolutions were in specific categories (e.g. stopping smoking), while success was found more often in resolutions like “becoming an all-around better person”. In another study, Powers et al (2007) found that self-criticism negatively impacted goal setting, while autonomy, or setting your own goals, benefited the subjects’ goals, particularly when they were weight-related.

Although there are a number of articles, both scientific and general, that focus on resolutions, goal setting, and accountability, very few studies or articles have presented any new information you haven’t already heard. Just like there is no secret way to study (you just have to do it) or lose weight, proper goal setting and achieving resolutions isn’t innately that hard. You just have to do it. The problem is, most people set un-achievable or un-specific goals, leading to these failed resolutions. So, instead of searching for a complicated, but easy, way to reach your goals, here is my four-step system, which might help:

1. Be realistic

Set attainable, achievable goals. If you want to read more, don’t set a goal of 50 books because you will burn out and start to hate reading. If you want to get healthy or exercise more pick an activity you might enjoy (e.g. don’t commit to running every day if you hate running) and set a realistic schedule – every night might be pushing it. Starting small with attainable goals will only help you to continue and in the end will be more successful.

2. Don’t be too hard on yourself

If your goal was to go to the gym three times a week but you have only been able to go once or twice, don’t feel bad. You’re still going! A set-back is not a failure and you’re likely accomplishing more than you would have before you started on your goal. Allowing yourself to fail a few times will not only help with your confidence, but it will keep you from giving up. As Powers et al. (2007) noted, self-criticism will only hinder you in reaching your goals.

3. Give yourself accountability.

While Marlatt & Kaplan (1972) may not have noticed a significant difference in monitored weigh-ins compared with non-monitored subjects in their 3-month study, goal accountability is the only way most of us will be successful. Whether it’s gaining a gym buddy to make sure you go to that exercise class, going to a weigh-in, or writing down that book you read on GoodReads, that external pressure will help you reach your goal. If you want to start running, sign up for a race. Deadlines work.

4. Accept that change happens slowly

If your goal is to lose weight or become healthier it probably won’t happen all in a year. Habits are there for a reason, and changing your mindset can take a long time. Maybe your 2017 goal is to begin an active lifestyle – go to the gym or exercise twice a week. If you have a successful year doing that, build on it –  join a sports team, sign up for a race, start eating healthier. Big changes will be slow, but just remind yourself that a little change every year is better than attempting that big change and falling back to square one every year.

So whether it’s reading a bit more every year, or writing (or starting a blog), go out of your comfort zone, start with something small, and don’t be too hard on yourself. Change is hard and habits are hard to break, but even tiny steps will eventually get you where you want to go!

Good Luck in 2017!

References:

Marlatt, G. Alan, and Burt E. Kaplan. “Self-initiated attempts to change behavior: A study of New Year’s resolutions.” Psychological Reports 30.1 (1972): 123-131.

Powers, Theodore A., Richard Koestner, and David C. Zuroff. “Self-criticism, goal motivation, and goal progress.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 26.7 (2007): 826.

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