Every year, the majority of us — stemming from the most noble of intentions, or the most nauseating of eggnog overindulgence — declare our desire to start anew and totally revise our lives. For most of us, though, Groundhog Day brings not just an excuse to settle in with a Bill Murray movie, but the milestone of having let ourselves down once more. And yet by the time the ball drops anew in Times Square ten months later, we’re happily preparing to drop our own ball all over again.
What would it take to make our resolutions stick? Psychological research on goal-setting and achievement has a lot to teach us: they need be the right balance of realistic and challenging, and we need to have clear, specific pathways to reach them. We also are better off focusing on only one or two resolutions rather than attempting the equivalent of a floor-to-ceiling structural renovation of our inner selves. Sound too complicated? Here’s how to give the most common resolutions a psychological makeover, after the jump…1. Lose 20 Pounds: Though a common goal after your 37th snowman cookie, this is not nearly specific enough. Focus on the small, daily steps you’ll use to achieve weight loss, so that you can approach each day — and each buffet — with a fresh start. This hopefully involves increased exercise and modified eating habits, discussed below, rather than just that wishbone you battled over with cousin Lenny.
2. Get Out of Debt: This can be difficult because it’s an avoidance goal rather than an approach goal, as are “Spend Less,” “Stop Wasting Money,” and “Ignore the Siren Song of the Overpriced Latte.” Focus on the positive, not the negative. Come up with a weekly dollar amount to sock away or pay off, or a specific item or service that you’ll find a way to do more cheaply. Then track your results weekly.
3. Get Organized: You can start by streamlining this goal itself. “Donate, recycle or trash four items each night” is much better than “Get the house under control,” just as “Develop a neater home for my keys, crumpled takeout menus, and junk mail” is much better than “Cut down on clutter.”
4. Be a Better Person: Who’s going to assess your progress on this, a focus group of willing strangers? Instead, pick a specific behavior you can measure yourself. “Volunteer in February at the Food Bank on 2nd Street.” “Make a list of birthdays for the kitchen cabinet and vow to get at least 5 cards out on time.” Or, we all can dream: “Wait more than a nanosecond before honking after the light turns green.”
5, Exercise More: Here, you need a much better behavioral yardstick, so that you can reward yourself when you measure up. “Take the stairs to my office on Mondays,” or “Park in that way-off spot on Fridays,” would jumpstart much more tangible progress.
6. Quit Smoking: This is a healthy goal, no doubt — but it’s also one that can be frustrating and unmotivating. After all, how will you know when you’ve achieved it? Spell out the steps you’ll use, and give yourself plenty of reinforcement for mini-milestones along the way. Here’s something better: “Use the patch and an online support group to have a smoke-free week by Valentine’s Day.”
7. Eat Better: Once again, vagueness is this resolution’s downfall. Sure, we can guess it involves becoming less intimate with the vending machine, but just what are the specific steps you’ll take to do that? Instead, try “Order something naturally green for Tuesday lunch,” “Replace my linguine with whole wheat,” or “Try a new vegetarian recipe on the 15th of each month”—and give yourself a pat on the back.
Dr. Andrea Bonior is a licensed clinical psychologist, professor, and columnist. Her personal website is here.