The holiday season now takes a shift away from the goodies and rich foods that start with Hanukah and (almost) end with Christmas. There’s one last big day left*: New Years Eve/ Day.
* In Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK we have Boxing Day today, the day when all the unsold merchandise for Christmas goes on sale and people do silly things like camp out overnight on Christmas Night so they can get a deal the next morning. It’s just like Black Friday in the US.
People often wake from the sugar-induced near-comtose generated by all the treats on Boxing Day to realize that their new holiday pants fit tighter than expected, that the number of wine bottles in the recycling are hard to count, and that the return to everyday life that comes after the holidays might not be as jolly given the absence of any holidays to look forward to. Add to that the myriad “year in review” lists and recaps on television, print and the Internet and its quite natural to want to make a New Year’s Resolution.
The answer to that is: don’t do it. They don’t work and the whole thing is one big fallacy.
But evidence never stopped people from doing things before — even physicians and scientists — so if you must make them, here are some recommendations from a person that teaches a graduate level health behaviour change course on how to be a little smarter about goal setting:
1. Be specific. Declaring that you’re going to be healthier in 2011 isn’t providing much to go on. Does that mean that you’re going to eat better? And if so, what does that mean? A big mistake is that people keep their goals too general and thus, never really know if they’ve acheived them. One rubric to use is the S.M.A.R.T system for goals. S.M.A.R.T. refers to goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time Framed. The closer you can adhere to these, the more likely you are to achieve them.
2. Keep quiet. There is a school of thought that suggests that advertising your goals to the world (make them public) is a strong way to motivate change. The thinking here is based on theories of social norming and pressure that suggest that the fear of letting others down will motivate you to succeed. That might have some currency, but it paradoxically fails for reasons that have little to do with others and much to do with our brain. Research from NYU psychologist Peter M. Gollwitzer and his colleagues (PDF) found:
When other people take notice of one’s identity-relevant behavioral intentions, one’s performance of the intended behaviors is compromised. This effect occurs both when the intentions are experimenter supplied and when they are self-generated, and is observed in both immediate performance and performance measured over a period of 1 week. It does not emerge when people are not committed to the superordinate identity goal.(p.616)
Some other resources on this are available here. This isn’t to say that you can’t share aspirations with people, but when you declare you’re going to do something out loud ( following S.M.A.R.T) and get feedback from others, your brain starts to imagine that you’ve already accomplished the goal and is already diminishing your motivational fire.
3. Do it for yourself. Another reason these publicly stated goals might cause problems is that often we announce goals that we want to believe in (or believe others approve of), rather than those we want for ourselves. A large body of evidence suggests that we’re much more likely to do things that fit with our self-concept and values than those that challenge or complicate it. Self-determination theory is the foundation for this concept. Author Daniel Pink wrote an accessible piece on this in his recent book Drive. This can be applied broadly or more specifically. For example, with regards to weight loss, there are a lot of options to assist that from changing the food you eat and the way you eat (not dieting, which is a far larger fallacy than New Years Resolutions and persists even more) to exercise. Perhaps running on a treadmill is something that bores you to tears, so try a group dance class instead. If you’re not a fan of salads, try doing more with beans, oatmeal, nuts, fruit or smoothies. There are lots of ways to get the same place, but choose the things that you really like first.
4. Be social and connect. Even if you’re not announcing your goals to the world on YouTube or doing all the things you want to do first, it is still important to be social. Research on social networks and health show remarkable links (pun intended) between our social networks and our health behaviours. Smoking, obesity and mental health are all enhanced by having strong social networks (however you connect — this isn’t just about Facebook or Twitter). Building strong connections with people can offer so much benefit in terms of keeping you healthy, informed and “human”.
5. Help yourself by helping others. If you want to reach your goals, try helping others reach theirs. Working with your friends and family to support them in reaching their goals can actually strengthen your own resolve. Communities of practice are groups of individuals that are motivated to support each other in solving particular problems that often fall outside of traditional lines of work, discipline or problem domain. These collectives are often self-organized and volunteer-oriented and because of that, they capitalize on many of the aforementioned points. Find a community of people tackling the same problems and offer your assistance and wisdom. In doing so, you might find that you start to work through your own challenges and issues. Research on complex systems shows that small, incremental changes over a long time will produce much more stable change than radical upheavals at once.
New Year’s resolutions are problems because they often set us up for failure. Perhaps the one resolution that you will want to follow this year is to skip the resolution altogether and commit to doing something small often and enjoying yourself and those around you while you do it.
Did you make a resolution or two to do things different this year? I suspect there are already more than a few readers who have measured 2010 by the number of resolutions that have already fallen. If so, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re probably quite normal.
New year’s resolutions don’t work in changing behaviour. In fact, research reported by Jonah Leherer at the the Wall Street Journal’s health blog points to the problems with these annual rituals and points out that, not only do some resolutions fail to inspire change, they may just impair change. Among the research that Leherer cites is work from Roy Baumeister and his lab at Florida State University that has looked at willpower and cognition. The article reports:
In a 2007 experiment, Prof. Baumeister and his colleagues found that students who fasted for three hours and then had to perform a variety of self-control tasks, such as focusing on a boring video or suppressing negative stereotypes, had significantly lower glucose levels than students who didn’t have to exert self-control. Willpower, in other words, requires real energy.
Anyone who’s tried to quit smoking, exercise more, or suppress any kind of unhelpful thought knows that its hard work. The article cites another study that looked at the role of cognition and attention and diet:
In another experiment, Mr. Baumeister and his colleagues gave students an arduous attention task—they had to watch a boring video while ignoring words at the bottom of the screen—before asking them to drink a glass of lemonade. Half of the students got lemonade with real sugar, while the other half got a drink with Splenda. On a series of subsequent tests of self-control, the group given fake sugar performed consistently worse. The scientists argue that their lack of discipline was caused by a lack of energy, which hampered the performance of the prefrontal cortex.
Since the most popular New Year’s resolution is weight loss, it’s important to be aware that starving the brain of calories—even for just a few hours—can impact behavior. Skipping meals makes it significantly harder to summon up the strength to, say, quit cigarettes. Even moderation must be done in moderation.
When we talk of energy balance in public health we typically refer to issues related to diet and obesity, balancing energy output with energy input from calories. The above research has less to do with this directly and more about ensuring one has the psychological energy necessary to make the changes we want happen.
I’ve discussed this before when referring to organizations. Energy is important to taking information and using it, but so is applying it in a manner that fits with how change happens and on this level much of the conventional thinking fails us. In mainstream psychology, behaviour change tends to focus first on getting the right information, rationally processing it, and then transforming it into a plan of action (goal) that has structure and clearly anticipated and expected outcomes. We place a timeline (consider the Transtheoretical Model and Stages of Change, which suggest 6 months, 3 months, and 30 days as reasonable timelines for thinking about and planning change). We might enlist friends or allies in the battle too or find a role model to follow like with Social Cognitive Theory.
All of this takes place in a very linear, planned way. Yet, that isn’t really how most people change. Robert West and others have pointed out how on issues of smoking cessation (for example), nearly half of quitters had no plan when they finally quit. Indeed, many just quit almost spontaneously. Linear, rational models of change are so prevalent because they make sense to our brain that wants to make things simple, yet change is rarely like this. I would argue that our change processes — individual, organizational or otherwise — are far more complex than this and therefore require a complex model of understanding change to fully address and support change. Maybe we need to create the mental equivalent of catalytic probes to focus the mind or perhaps we need to engage in diverse experiences to transform the way we process information to support new self-organized mental patterns.
What this looks like is something I’m planning to give much more thought to in 2010 on these pages, because on a personal level the linear ways of doing things didn’t work so well in 2009 and not for the world either. Over the next few months, this issue will be explored further on this site and I welcome readers’ thoughts on how this might look from your point of view.
The first stop on this journey will be information, which serves as the foundation for most of the models of change we adhere to and, as you’ll see, not all is what it seems to be.
Best wishes for a great start to 2010 and may the complexity you find bring with it much joy.