How To Make Your New Years Resolution Stick

Sunday, 3 January 2016  |  Admin

If you’re like many of us, you’ll have made New Year’s resolutions this year. But, if you’re like many of us, you might have difficulty keeping them. Exactly what’s going wrong? How can we turn those resolutions into results?

Self-control

Keeping your New Year’s resolutions requires self-control. If they’re especially ambitious, they might require more self-control than you’re capable of. You might notice that some of your friends are able to stick to their pledges easily, while others break them within just a few weeks.

Some people, clearly, have more self-control than others. But while many of us regard self-control as an innate ability, present in some people and lacking in others, the truth is that it’s something which can be taught, and which becomes easier with practice.

In the 1960s, a distinguished psychologist named Walter Mischel conducted an experiment whose ramifications are still hotly discussed today: the Stanford marshmallow experiment. In the experiment, Mischel offered small children a choice – they could either have one marshmallow immediately, or two marshmallows fifteen minutes later. He would then leave the room and return fifteen minutes later to see if the child had managed to resist temptation.

Mischel performed follow-ups of his experiments ten, and then twenty years later. His findings were quite extraordinary; children who had been able to resist temptation performed better in school, were wealthier (even after adjusting for other factors), and were less likely to be involved in crime and petty violence. His findings have since been replicated by many other experiments, concerning everything from smoking to weight loss to anger.

You can watch Mischel’s famous experiment replicated here. Note that children display visible signs of stress while they’re exerting self-control. Self-control is analogous to a muscle; if not exercised, it will become weak.

It’s this theory that’s behind meditation practices whose practitioners try to focus their minds on arbitrary things like the sensation of breathing – bringing their attention back whenever they stray. If you’d like an introduction to such practices, then an online tool like calm.com can be a great place to start.

Be Realistic

With all this in mind, it’s important to consider exactly how much you can realistically expect to achieve. If your self-control is like a muscle, is it sensible to expect it to lift an enormous amount straight away? No – such an approach is doomed to result in a demoralising failure. For this reason, those with puny levels of self-control cannot expect to perform herculean feats immediately.

Instead, slow, incremental change is preferable. Make yourself a target that you know will be challenging, but not so much so that it will be impossible. That way, once you achieve your target, you’ll be able to move onto the next.

Incentivise yourself

In order to drive yourself toward your goal – whether it be giving up smoking or losing those extra Christmas pounds – you’ll need to give yourself a reason to do so. Now, it’s difficult to make generalisations about the things that motivate different people. Everyone is different; some react more strongly to reward, others will act only if they fear punishment.

This means understanding your own psychology. If you’re a reward-based person, then give yourself a treat only after you’ve met a measurable goal. So, if you’ve managed to go without smoking for a month, then you might treat yourself to a spa treatment.

If you’re more into disincentives, then you might simply instruct all of your friends and relatives of your intended goal. The thought of their jeering judgement on your failure will then spur you on toward triumph!

Famously prodigious fantasy novelist Brandon Sanderson has said that he occasionally buys an entire box of truffles, and treats himself to one for every section of his manuscript he edits – the technique is effective, though it’s probably not the healthiest approach. Find a method that works for you and stick at it.

Break it down

If you’re to achieve your long-term goals, then breaking them down into more comprehensible chunks is essential. So, if you want to lose five stone over a year, then you’re looking at a pound and two-thirds every week. It suddenly doesn’t seem such a daunting task, does it? And once you’ve gotten the first week out of the way, and then the second, you’ll begin to feel much better about your long-term prospects. Similarly, if you’re looking to write that novel, finally, then committing to writing a few thousand words a week will slowly but surely pile that finished manuscript up.

Whatever your goals are in the New Year, you’ll stand a much-improved chance of reaching them if you take a methodical approach that rewards small successes on the way to the big ones. 

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