By Chris Chipello
So, you’re going to really get your act together this year: hit the gym; shed a few pounds; put your finances in order.
Those are the more common New Year’s resolutions many of us embrace, year after year, with the best of intentions.
And just as reliably, by the end of January about 40 per cent of us will have thrown in the towel – a figure that rises to 60 per cent within six months and 90 per cent after two years, research shows.
Why do we fall so short?
“The classic thing that psychologists have focused on is how people frame their goals,” explained McGill Psychology Professor Richard Koestner. It’s hard to carry out vague, unquantifiable resolutions. So, psychologists say, goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and set with a time frame in mind – five characteristics known by the acronym SMART.
But adopting SMART goals is no guarantee of success, cautions Koestner, whose research lab in the Stewart Biological Sciences Building focuses on human motivation.
A key point of Koestner’s research: Even if a goal is framed perfectly, “we have limited capacity to exercise self-control. And most of us, in our everyday lives, are using up the full capacity. So in setting and achieving a goal, we have to consciously recognize that we have limited capacities for altering our behaviour or willfully changing it.”
In other words, it’s hard to summon up the willpower to meet new challenges when we’ve already got our hands full dealing with all the demands of jobs and families.
Koestner has two suggestions to get around those limitations on self-control.
First, select goals that connect with your interests and important values. Too often, people set goals with an eye to meeting others’ expectations or dealing with their own feelings of guilt. So if your goal is to get your finances in order, but budgeting and investing seem like a chore to you, you’re not likely to stick with it very long. If, on the other hand, your goal involves something that genuinely resonates with you, you’re more likely to follow through.
Second, once a goal is set, think about when, where and how you’ll achieve it. What are the obstacles and distractions that you’re likely to face, and how will you overcome them? “There’s a lot of evidence that if people just take five minutes to think through a plan, they’ll be much more successful at following through on their intention.”
Choose a plan that fits
Evidence also shows that the plan has to fit the person well. To illustrate the point, Koestner cites a local newspaper story about a business woman who had failed to follow through on previous resolutions to exercise more often. She finally realized she needed to pick two times a week to go to the gym, and block time in her agenda, just as she did for business meetings. “This was a lady that basically ran her life based on her agenda. So by carving out that time and putting it in her agenda, that made it kind of automatic for her to follow through on it.
“If you select a goal that is related to your interests and values, and if you also develop an implementation plan, that’s when you’ll see a higher chance of success,” Koestner said. “Research on New Year’s resolutions suggests that people typically have to try six or seven times before they succeed,” he adds. But with an appropriate goal and implementation plan, “I think people can succeed after two or three tries.”
It may also be a good idea to defer some resolutions for later in the year, rather than trying to tackle too many at once – particularly during the cold, dark month of January, when just getting around can be daunting. “If you have five resolutions, start with two,” Koestner suggests. “Then, on July 1, move on to another one.”
Hugs and hamstring stretches
So what are Koestner’s resolutions for 2011?
“The first will sound a little funny” he said. “My first goal is to hug people – mostly I mean hugging family members,” he hastened to add, noting that he had read a book by emotion psychologist Dacher Keltner that documents the benefits of physical touch in promoting closeness and connection. “My second goal is to stretch every day – I do a lot of exercising, but I haven’t been good about stretching and, as a 50 year old, it’s important to remember to do that.”
The idea of hugging family members more often is a reminder of another point Koestner likes to make about resolutions. People tend to get “too caught up with achievement-oriented goals,” he said. “We often don’t set goals about our connections with others. And those are the things that probably affect our well-being the most.”
Koestner will deliver a Campus Community lecture on New Year’s resolutions on Jan. 17, from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Admission is free, but seating limited. To reserve a seat, register at www.alumni.mcgill.ca/events/Lunchlearn-resolutions2011. The lecture will also be streamed live on the Campus Community Committee’s website: http://aoc.mcgill.ca/network/campus-community/ .