While statistics confirm that most resolutions will never be kept, a few simple techniques may improve your chances of success.
Oscar Wilde once wrote, ‘A New Year’s resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other.’
And while statistics confirm that most resolutions will never be kept, new research shows that a few simple techniques are proven to work in making your desired behaviour change last well beyond the stroke of midnight.
“This year I will definitely exercise three times a week,” promises Joan*, a 30-year-old designer who spends her working day sitting in front of a computer. On the first day of the first week, she sets her alarm, gets up early and goes for a 45-minute walk. On the second day, she repeats this.
On the third day, it rains and – having gone to bed late after a night drinking with the girls – Joan snuggles under the covers and thinks, “I’ll just lie here for five minutes.” She dozes until the last possible minute and then rushes to work. The regimen has hit a snag and Joan spends the rest of the day lamenting her lack of willpower. Is this scenario familiar? Is there anything that Joan can do about it?
It is well known from psychological research that changing behaviour is hard. It is hard to start and even harder to maintain. This fact alone might bring comfort to a lot of people who imagine that they ‘should be able to’ change long-standing habits almost overnight. What are the main elements that have been shown to work in changing behaviour?
IS INFORMATION ENOUGH?
Information is generally thought to be a necessary part of the package, although is not by itself sufficient to change behaviour. Unsurprisingly, people need to be committed to achieve behaviour change, and also follow through their intentions with plans. But how?
An article published this year in the journal Health Psychology details a study that compared two groups. The first group was given information about healthy eating, while the second group received information plus a psychological technique.
The researchers found that both groups ate more fruit and vegetables in the first four months than they had at the start of the program. This is good news in itself, but here is where it gets interesting. At four months the results started to differ between the two groups.
Whereas the information group slowly returned to eating the same amount of fruit and vegetables as they had at the beginning, the group with information and the psychological technique kept their fruit and vegetable intake up by nearly 30 per cent more than at the beginning, and this was sustained for two years.
SO WHAT IS THE PSYCHOLOGICAL TECHNIQUE?
The first part of the technique involves identifying an important goal that you expect to be able to accomplish. We’re all pretty good at this step but let’s briefly review the type of goals to set.
According to Sonja Lyubomirsky in her book The How of Happiness (Penguin, 2007), the goal ideally should have the following characteristics:
-It should be determined by you rather than being imposed by others.
-It should be about approaching not avoiding something. When asked what their goals are from psychological work clients often say, “I don’t want to feel like this.” They are referring to feeling stressed, anxious or otherwise out of control. Although not surprising that their attention is focused on removing the negative, it’s useful to frame up goals as a positive statement, for example, “I want to feel happier.”
-It should be able to work with the other parts of your life.
-It should be flexible.
-It should be based on activity not circumstance, i.e. it couldn’t be “meet the person I’ve been waiting to meet” as that is circumstance, rather “to increase socialising by joining a tennis club and taking up every opportunity for social occasions that result.”
To give an example, I worked with Allan* who wanted to stop the dizziness and headaches he was experiencing. When we explored what was going on in his life, he explained he was carrying the workload of three positions in the company he worked for, was organising a family holiday overseas for his extended family and never missed his children’s weekly sports practices or games.
Allan’s goal “to stop the dizziness and headaches” was avoidance oriented: to stop headaches rather than increase amount of time away from work. It also conflicted with the intensity of his work; it might not be humanly possible to do that much work without some symptoms. With some work Allan came to line up his values and spoke to his company about taking another person on, so he could actively organise his time to maintain a healthy lifestyle (be engaged at work and recognise signs of overwork, as well as spend time encouraging his children).
In order to gain strong commitment to the goal, research from the study above indicates that there are two further steps:
1) Identify and imagine the most positive outcome of your goal. With Allan this was “feeling healthy”.
2) Identify and imagine the biggest obstacle that stands in the way of the goal. Allan’s was a “tendency to say yes to my bosses”.
It is the second part of the technique detailed above that I find people typically haven’t thought through. It is to get more specific details of when and where and how the person wants to act in critical situations
For example, if the goal is to “eat more fruit and vegetables”, the subject might think of how they will act at restaurants, when travelling, and at other situations where they may be tempted not to follow through with the goal. Then they have to specify the behaviour they would do with an “if … then” statement. For example, “If I am at a restaurant and they ask about dessert, then I will choose options with fruit not cake.”
This series of steps has been shown to be effective at increasing exercise time, too. The same team authored a study published in the 2009 American Journal of Preventative Medicine, which showed that information plus the psychological technique just outlined increased exercise by 60 minutes per week whereas the information-only group increased by 15 minutes a week. Both studies had participants who had high intentions to be physically active backed up by a positive attitude (sounds like all of us at the beginning of the year right?). It works because obstacles are acknowledged and addressed before time.
OTHER HELPFUL TECHNIQUES.
Research-based techniques compiled by Richard Wiseman in 59 Seconds (Macmillan, 2009) include making a step-by-step plan, telling other people about your goals, recording progress in a journal/blog and rewarding yourself for making progress towards the goal.
Some techniques to avoid are motivating yourself by only thinking about the bad things that will happen if you don’t achieve your goal (this will probably de-motivate you), trying to suppress unhelpful thoughts (suppression usually doesn’t work) and relying on willpower (behaviour change is more complicated than that). I had a client who photographed herself naked, reasoning that being disgusted by the picture would motivate her to lose weight. Chances are she will be demoralised by viewing the picture and more likely to slip into hopelessness.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT
Behaviours can generally be categorised into two groups: the things that we do repetitively, somewhat automatically, and things that we intend to do. A 2004 study from Duke University in North Carolina found that 47 per cent of everyday actions were repetitive, usually enacted in the same location. Every time you repeat a behaviour, an association is formed between the behaviour and the context it occurs in.
I have a certain night-time ritual which involves setting the alarm in my bedroom, laying out my cycling or walking gear so when the alarm goes, there is no conscious choice about whether to go walking or not, the cues are there, so I’m in the exercising clothes and out the door before I think about it. With time the contextual cues trigger the behaviour and strengthen it.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN WHEN TALKING ABOUT NEW BEHAVIOURS?
When learning a new behaviour, remember it will be hardest at the beginning as the routine and cues are established, and involve less effort over time. The decision is made before the behaviour is first enacted and the role of repetition takes care of the rest.
Joan realised that on nights she goes out with the girls, it was unrealistic to expect herself to go for an early walk. She switched her exercise to an after-work gym workout and made it a condition with her friends that they go together to burn off the previous night excesses.
*Names have been changed