New Year’s Resolutions: If You Must…

We Resolve To No More New Years Resolutions! (CC - Meddy Garnet)

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.

2 thoughts on “New Year’s Resolutions: If You Must…”

  1. I find it quite interesting that there is research suggesting to “keep quiet”. I know that if I didn’t have my boyfriend, I wouldn’t have been able to lose about 50 lbs a few summers ago. I needed him when I felt anxious to talk to instead of reaching for a chocolate bar to comfort me. I never shared my journey with my parents because I wasn’t comfortable, but I definitely needed to talk to someone.

  2. Thanks for your comments Nour. The language of “keep quiet” is an awkward one because social support is so important. The key here isn’t to stop sharing your dreams and ideas, but rather it can be more useful to speak of your aspirations rather than specific goals. At the same time, telling those closest to you is not a bad idea either; it’s part of sharing yourself. What the evidence suggests is that when you start speaking of your goal a part of your brain relaxes and starts to convince itself that the deed is already done. It’s probably the reason why you feel so good when you tell someone something that you’ve been holding back (like not having someone to talk about a problem and then finding that friend who will listen).

    So the lesson here — and the evidence is still in development — seems to be this: keep the specifics to yourself, but the overall aim as something you can share. Keep in mind, this is ONLY for goals, not for support needs in everyday life.

    This is much different than seeking out support. If you’re going through a tough time, needing people to support you, or just looking for someone to bounce ideas off of then sharing is so important. Having social support is one of the best things in life and really something that will do more for your health than almost anything, period.

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