The new year brings the promise of a fresh start, but it can also bring high expectations. Resolutions can be great tools for self-improvement, said Art Markman, a psychology professor at UT Austin, but most of the time they are used ineffectively.
New Year’s resolutions aren’t magic wishes. If you want them to come true, they should be the driving force in a larger plan.
“Unfortunately, most people don’t put much effort into thinking about how they will make the change they want,” he said. “So, the resolutions they make often fail.”
We asked Markman, who is an expert on change and human behavior, why people keep making resolutions that fail and what they can do to stay on track this year.
Why do so many people fail to keep their resolutions?
Markman: There are several reasons. Frequently, people frame the problem too abstractly. Resolving something like “I want to get physically fit” does not specify any actions you need to take. As a result, people start the year without a good plan for how to achieve their goal.
You said in an article with TIME magazine that the key to keeping resolutions is to start earlier. Why is that?
AM: People have a lot of existing habits they are unaware of. In order to succeed at changing behaviors, it is important to start by spending a couple of weeks just observing behavior around the habit that needs to be changed.
How can people plan better to achieve their resolutions?
AM: They should create what psychologists call an “implementation intention.” This is focused on specific actions needed to achieve their goal. When making a plan, consider obstacles and how the plan will help overcome those obstacles. It is also helpful to identify people who can be looped in on the plan. They can provide encouragement, feedback and support.
All of that takes time. So, it is useful to start planning for a resolution several weeks before actually starting on the course of changing behavior.
Do you have advice on choosing a resolution?
AM: Frame your resolution positively. That is, focus on actions you are going to take rather than actions you are going to avoid. Ultimately, you are trying to create new habits that will allow you to reach your goals without having to think about the actions.
If you frame your resolution negatively (like “I want to stop smoking”), then you are focused on not doing an action (i.e. smoking). Instead, think about the situations in which you normally smoked, and plan for a new action you are going to take instead. This way, you can develop a new set of behaviors.
What other tips do you have for keeping resolutions?
AM: It is important to think about your environment. A lot of daily behavior is driven by the physical world. Set up the environment to make desirable behaviors easy and undesirable behaviors hard. Someone who wants to snack less often at home should buy fewer snacks so that they aren’t lying around the house waiting to be eaten.
In addition, find people who already engage in the behaviors you want to engage in. People are wired to adopt the goals of the people around them. If you spend your time with people who do what you want to do, you will find yourself more motivated to engage in those actions as well.
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.