New Year’s Resolutions: Beware!

This is a reprint of a classic blog by Aubrey Daniels, from 2012.

The origin of New Year’s Resolutions can be linked to pre-Christian times in Rome, thousands of years ago.  So every year about this time, I ask audiences where I speak how many made New Year’s Resolutions.  What I have noticed is that fewer and fewer have gone through the ritual.  Does that mean that fewer people are interested in carrying on this ancient tradition?  I think not.  In fact, it’s been reported that more than half of those that proclaim resolutions fail at realizing them. The reality is that most people who make resolutions don’t keep them – many don’t keep them even for a day. The primary mistake people make in making resolutions is that they think that changing some personal behavior or habit is simply a matter of will power or “making up your mind.”  It is as if people who fail don’t grunt enough, don’t have enough resolve (how do you get more of that?), are not really serious (How can you increase your “really seriousness?).

The real mistake lies in not planning or managing consequences well.  It is easy to resolve to quit drinking, lose weight, start exercising, etc. but it is harder to plan consequences that you will actually be able to self-administer to get the behavior change you seek.  Therefore, the resolution is nothing more than a goal, and goals aren’t reached by grunting, wishing or talking; they are reached when you have consequences that support the behavior change. Here are some practical suggestions to help you be successful should you want to carry on the New Year’s Resolution tradition.

  1. Plan consequences for behavior change. Allow yourself to do things that you like contingent on a certain accomplishment. In other words, if you resolve to do some project in your house, commit to getting it done before you sit down to watch your favorite TV program.
  2. Set very small sub-goals. The more, the better.  If weight loss is a target, set a goal of no more than one pound a week.  The trick is to set a goal that you are almost sure to reach.  Less than a pound is ok if you can reliably measure it on your scales.  Smoke one cigarette less per day; walk around the block.  No goal can be too small at the beginning.
  3. Post a graph of your progress at home or in the office where everyone can see it.  Set the parameters so that progress is easy to see.  Tell family and co-workers what you are doing.  Use social media to show results.  Put the graph on Facebook, Twitter, etc. The more people who see your progress will reinforce you for it and in return you will be more motivated to keep at it.
  4. Celebrate every success (every goal accomplishment), no matter how small.  Reward yourself.  Publicize your small accomplishments.  “I am one step closer to finishing that big report.”
  5. In addition to rewards that cost money (buying something for yourself, dinner at a fancy restaurant, a movie, some new software for your computer, an iPad, etc.) think of rewards that have a low cost or have no financial cost.  Use the “IF I do X, then I will do Y” contingency.  Or, “when I do X, then I will do Y.”  If your resolution is to clean the attic, basement or garage, simply say, “When I put something in the trash, I will watch T.V., answer my email, play a computer game or go to McDonalds for breakfast.”  You will be surprised how quickly you finish the task with this simple start as long as you maintain the contingency “When…then.”

By the way don’t do it in reverse which most people are tempted to do, that is, “I will work in the attic after I come home from McDonalds.”  I call that bribery since it reinforces the wrong behavior.  You get the reward for promising to do the behavior, not for actually doing it.  Not a good plan. Most failures to reach personal or work goals result from poor goal setting and from failure to plan positive reinforcers for success.  If you start the New Year with small goals and a multitude of reinforcement, 2012 may be your best year yet!


Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.