As a psychology professor, I teach classes on changing behavior, and I usually start by asking my students how many of them have made New Year’s resolutions that failed. Most hands go up. In fact, many people respond that they have stopped making New Year’s resolutions because they don’t work.
But it does not have to be this way. Simply put, if you want to succeed with your New Year’s resolutions, you have to start way before New Year’s Eve to get ready. Don’t make a fervent wish on Dec. 31. Instead, people need to give themselves some preparation time.
The reason that resolutions fail is that people don’t put in enough effort to allow them to succeed. The things we resolve to change in our lives are generally the systematic failures in our lives. For instance, people often resolve to get in shape, stop smoking or drinking, or to get more serious about establishing a career.
But even if you want to make a change, it is not easy to make systematic changes in your behavior. We have habits that get in the way of achieving our goals. We also have constructed an environment that supports our behavior and have surrounded ourselves with people who help us.
You first have to focus on positive goals rather than negative ones. A positive goal is an action you want to perform; a negative goal is something you want to stop doing. Your habits are memories of actions you perform in a particular situation. You can’t learn not to do something, so if you focus yourself only on stopping behaviors, you will never develop new habits.
For example, when I was growing up, I used to bite my nails. I would resolve periodically to stop biting my nails, but that never worked because I would eventually return to my old habit. When I was in graduate school, I observed my own behavior, and discovered that I bit my nails primarily when sitting at my desk at work. So, I bought a bunch of desk toys and started playing with them instead. It is awkward to bite nails while playing with a toy. I now have the habit to play with desk toys, but I no longer bite my nails.
More people also need to make realistic plans for what they want to change about themselves. If you want to start going to the gym more often, it is not enough to say that you want to go to the gym three times a week. Where is that going to fit on your calendar? You need to pick specific days and add that to your agenda. Unless you get specific, you will have a hard time identifying all of the obstacles that will get in your way. Put the gym on your calendar Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. That is specific enough to give you a fighting chance of succeeding.
People need to make changes to their environment as well. We tend to do things that are easy. A big key to behavior change is to make desirable behaviors easy and undesirable behaviors hard. During the past 50 years, the successful public health campaign to get people to stop smoking has succeeded in part because it is now virtually impossible to smoke in public buildings. As a result, people in the workplace or in restaurants or bars can’t just pick up a cigarette and light it. They have to walk outside. The undesirable behavior has been made hard to do.
Finally, after New Year’s Day, you need to be kind to yourself. Real behavior change is hard. There are days when you will succeed and others when you will fail. On the days you fail, treat that as an opportunity to learn about what to do in the future rather than as a reason to give up. People really can succeed with their New Year’s resolutions. They just have to plan ahead.
Art Markman is the founding director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations, the author of “Smart Change,” and the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at The University of Texas at Austin