THE BLOG

Making and (Really) Keeping New Year's Resolutions

31/12/2015 11:14 GMT | Updated 30/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Want to lose weight? Gain muscle? Stop smoking? Make more time for friends or family?

Most of us want to improve something about ourselves, and knocking on the door of 2016, what better time to promise yourself that this new year's resolution will be different? And yet, most of us have been there. Have you ever noticed that the gym is noticeably more crowded in January, and by February, attendance dwindles? Of course, the gyms don't mind: they bank on this cycle!

Realize that change is hard, even when the stakes are high. A recent study found that within two years following a life-saving heart by-pass operation, 90% of patients returned to pre-operation eating and lifestyle habits. Having taught executives and MBA students for years on the topic of "change," I thought I might offer a reminder (or primer!) for those who'd like to make and keep their January 1 resolutions. Increase your chances of success by applying SCRAPS (see the six characteristics below) to your goal/s for 2016:

- Self-initiated. Your partner wants you to lose weight, or your kids want you to smoke. That's interesting, but hardly motivating. One of my closest friends enjoyed her cigarettes so much that she once told me "I know cigarettes cut years off your life; I'd rather have a shorter, more enjoyable life smoking." Hard to argue with that. Unless and until you WANT this change, it won't happen. It's been said that the only person who likes change is a wet baby (though some cry during the changing process!). When others "should" on us, we get defensive and closed to their advice--even when the intentions are good. (Do these sound familiar: You should save more money! You should call your mother! You shouldn't wear those shoes!) Even when we think the goal makes sense, accepting others goals as our own is a set-up for failure. If you fail, you blame them. If you succeed, you don't take the credit.

- Clarity about challenges and plans to overcome. The best salespeople know what objections customers will voice and are prepared to raise and ameliorate the objection using product features, advantages and benefits. If you know that Valentine's Day means a box of chocolates given to you by your honey, then create a plan to overcome this challenge to your weight-loss goal, either by requesting a smaller box, considering a sugar-free variety, or perhaps opting for a hike or romantic fireplace snuggle with your honey. Another way to be clear about challenges is to recognize that moderation is key, and an occasional glass of wine or piece of candy is in keeping with a reasonable weight loss goal (e.g., a pound per week). Clarity about the challenges might take the form of knowing your habits and recognizing that a new habit takes two to three weeks to ingrain. Attempting a thrice-weekly early-morning workout (when waking up before 8a has always been a struggle) might require going to bed earlier than in the past.

- Reward successes--even small ones. Rome wasn't built in a day, nor did bad habits emerge overnight. When you establish your resolution, consider recognizing milestones with rewards when achieved. A milestone might be one week of going to the gym regularly, or cutting your alcohol or sugar intake to half of what it was. The reward should be something you enjoy and that is perhaps a bit special. Rewarding yourself with an extra hour of sleep isn't as special as taking yourself for a massage or spa day. Goal setting theories suggest that intrinsic rewards (for example, aligned with your personal values of accomplishment or quality) will be more motivating and lasting than extrinsic rewards (such as money offered by a loved one for achieving a particular goal).

- Aligned with friends and loved ones. If your best friends are also your drinking buddies, implementing a reduced-alcohol goal will be tough. Friends who don't embrace the same goals as you might have a hard time adjusting to your goal, and might feel judged or less comfortable hanging out with you when you order club soda while they're having cocktails. It might be more difficult still if your spouse smokes a pack or more a day and isn't motivated (or perhaps it's too cold) to go outside to smoke. It's one thing to see the drinks, but quite another to smell your loved one's cigarettes when you're trying to quit. I'm not suggesting you demand them to change--as that won't work (see "self-initiated"), but you might make a request for a compromise or be willing to put yourself out of harm's way in order to deal with this challenge.

- Publicly announced. When you make your goal public, two things happen. First, you feel pressure to behave in a manner consistent with your stated values. Consistency theory, put forth 50 years ago by social psychologist, Leon Festinger, suggests that when someone points out that our stated values are incongruent with our actions, we are motivated to change our actions (or change our values--which are far less malleable), rather than appear inconsistent. Second, by announcing your goals (to our friends or loved ones in person or on Facebook) you engender support from people who care about you and want you to succeed. (It's also harder to continually "start tomorrow" when others are watching you...)

- SMARTen your goals. The SMART acronym has been around for ages. It stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-Bound and describes how we should articulate our goals. "I'd like to get into better shape" is not a SMART goal. What is better shape? Are we talking inches, stamina, or body fat percentage? And how much better is better? Instead, apply SMART to this goal statement by rewriting it this way, for example: "I'd like to lose ten pounds by March 1 by cutting out dessert and getting 30 minutes of exercise at least three times a week." You get the picture.

Wishing readers a happy New Year, and great success with your 2016 resolution/s!