Chow down on that last piece of cake or have your last swig of beer because the calendar turns – January’s arrival can only mean it’s time to change your life around.
But wait. Not so fast.
The all or nothing mindset isn’t the best way to go about making – and keeping – those New Year’s resolutions, say local psychology profs.
Anne Wilson, psychology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University with a focus on identity and goal setting, says often we set goals that don’t end up panning out, especially at New Year’s. But she’s got some tips for making them stick.
“One of the best pieces of advice that’s backed up by evidence is it’s better to set small achievable goals and those goals are still perfectly fine if they fit into a bigger picture way that you want to see your life changing,” Wilson said.
For example, if you want to really change to a healthy lifestyle you may decide to add two extra servings of fruits and vegetables every day and cut out some of the food that is unhealthy. That’s a concrete goal and you can see when you’re doing it. She notes it might not translate to a number on a scale immediately, but you’re actually going to see what it is that you identified as a goal as something that you’re managing to keep up with more often than not.
“Another trick to achieving a lot of the same outcomes is to start focusing on the immediate benefits of those long-term outcomes. Rather than thinking about a new exercise program as no pain, no gain, start thinking about the things that are enjoyable about exercising or whatever it is you’re doing,” Wilson.
When you’re tired or busy but want to keep up your resolution, remind yourself of how much better you sleep after you’ve exercised or how productive it makes you the rest of the day.
It’s also important to remember if you spend two weeks really indulging before the New Year and then you don’t actually stick to your resolution all that long after the New Year then it might not actually be a benefit to you in the end.
“One of the insights that doesn’t get talked about as much, one thing that New Year’s resolutions can cause people to do, if they make a New Year’s resolution in advance it gives them license to indulge even more than usual, up until that day,” Wilson said.
While the New Year is attractive for setting goals because it’s symbolic of a fresh start and there’s extra motivation, it doesn’t necessarily make it the best time of year to do it. She says sometimes when people plan on making a big change at the New Year they can be really confident that next year’s going to be a fresh start, despite the fact that if they looked at the past they’d realize they’ve said that plenty of other times and every other time it doesn’t happen. Just having the motivation isn’t enough, she notes.
Often people will overvalue the present compared to the future, and that’s what derails us from achieving our goals.
“Often when we’re setting goals it’s because we’re envisioning this future self that’s going to be healthier or happier or more relaxed or super successful in their job. In order to get there it often means hard work or sacrifice and so there’s a term called temporal discounting that people tend to do a lot and basically what that means is people will think about something that’s going to benefit them in the future compared to something that’s going to benefit them now, even if the thing that’s going to benefit them now is equal of or lesser value in real terms, they’ll tend to overvalue whatever the thing that’s happening in the near future compared to the thing in the more distant future,” Wilson said.
Say you want to save money for a house. It’s going to feel like bigger deal to spend $100 right now compared to putting it away for a future. One way to try to shift away from being derailed from our future goals is to think about that future self, and realize it may not be you yet, but it’s who you want to be.
“People can often have the misconception that failure towards a goal means you can’t achieve it and if you switch the mindset from the idea that if I’ve tried to quit smoking 10 times and I’ve failed 10 times that means I can’t quit smoking. In fact in some cases the more times you fail the more likely you are to succeed in the end because it means you’re trying more often,” Wilson said.
Tobias Krettenauer, psychology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University with a focus on moral development, agrees that failure is a key to achieving goals.
He says when setting resolutions you have to expect failure, but that doesn’t give you a reason to give up on it.
“Most importantly I think is whether this is some change you really want to bring about or whether this is something you think others want you to do. I think many of these resolutions people come up with is something well they want to please their parents or their husbands or their wives and they say I won’t do this anymore. But it’s not deep inside, they don’t really feel this is something they want to do, a change they want to bring about in their lives,” Krettenauer said.
And for those people who make a list of five or six things they want to change in the New Year, Krettenauer cautions you against being that ambitious. It’s better to focus on one goal, especially if it involves changing a bad habit you’ve had for years.
“If you really want to change some of the habits that are deeply engrained in your life, you really have to make that a priority and really have to work on that. It’s certainly not a good idea to make six or seven things a priority right from the beginning. It’s better to focus on one thing and really think about it, what makes it difficult for you to do certain things or to be in a certain way, what are the situations that cause problems, what are the situations that trigger certain behaviors you don’t like to see in yourself? And then you have to really work on that,” Krettenauer said.