Do you have a New Year’s resolution? I hope so. We all have areas in our life that need some tweaking. So if you want to change, how do you do it? Maybe you’ve tried dozens of times to quit smoking, lose weight, get organized, or improve a relationship. You start off strong only to fall back into old patterns by late January. Maybe you’ve concluded that you don’t have enough willpower to win the battle – perhaps it’s always been that way.
Walter Mischel, a well-known psychologist and author, conducted marshmallow experiments with preschoolers (The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, 2014). He provided these youngsters the choice of eating one marshmallow (or other treat) now or waiting longer to get twice as much. He found that the kids who could delay their rewards in preschool were less likely to use drugs, achieved higher education, weighed less, and achieved more of their goals by their late 20’s. One conclusion from his research is that we are prewired for self-control. Studies have shown that this is true to some extent. But research also demonstrates we aren’t predestined to bad habits.
Even if our genetics predispose us to anxiety, impulsivity, addiction or overeating, we aren’t robots. We can learn new ways of responding to situations. Research has shown that our brains can make new connections and we can create environments to increase the likelihood of success. As the common saying goes in neuropsychology, cells that fire together wire together. We can reshape our perspectives with practice. Each of us has the ability to learn skills that will literally help us modify the inner workings of our brain. Here are a few tips:
Identify specific reasons for your goal. If you want to get healthy, why? What do you want to do as a result (have more energy to play with your kids or travel, take fewer medications, decrease your back pain, breathe easier)? Frequently remind yourself of what you’re trying to achieve.
Don’t stop with outcome goals. There is nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight, stop smoking, or improve your marriage. But how are you going to do it? Without details, your resolution is more of an idea than a goal.
Set specific, action-oriented goals. If you want to lose weight, set measurable behavioral goals that are likely to help you achieve your desired outcome (such as weighing daily, planning meals weekly, meeting regularly with a registered dietitian, or tracking your food with an app).
Make sure you have a series of modest short-term goals that move you towards larger achievements. Accomplishing small goals gives us a sense of satisfaction and encourages us to persist. Throughout the process we learn which strategies work and which ones don’t. I often encourage my weight-management clients to schedule meetings with themselves weekly to review their progress and set new goals.
Rehearse your plan to overcome obstacles. Think about the last time you tried to achieve your goal and were unsuccessful. How will you handle that situation differently this time? If your goal is to exercise five days per week, what will you do if you oversleep, it’s raining, or you have to work long hours? Mischel refers to these as If-Then scenarios that can make change easier. Eventually our responses will become more automatic.
None of us need to have a New Year’s resolution, but everyone can benefit from setting regular goals. Just like a rim and a net make basketball an exciting game, goals can stir a child-like enthusiasm within us and help us focus on living life the way we want. Just remember to set the goal at a reasonable height. You can always make it more challenging in the future.