Blog #18 – Strategies for the New Year
If you’re anything like me, the arrival of a new year brings with it a warrior-like zeal to make seismic changes to your life. The list can be long. Even the act of writing it makes us feel good. Committing to the intention to a) lose weight, b) get fit, c) drink less alcohol, d) master a new skill, e) make more quality time for friends and family, f) get that new business off the ground, and g) achieve world peace fires us up and fills us with enthusiasm. Some lists are longer than others (and may or may not include the world peace pledge), but many of us make a point of setting the bar high. This is admirable, but not necessarily practical.
The zeal with which we commit to our New Year self-improvement regime tends to be absolute and unquenchable, until we actually have to follow through on it. In other words, ambitious plans for the New Year sound and feel wonderful in December, but the problems start when January arrives and we find ourselves actually having to act on those plans.
At the time of writing, we have just edged past the halfway point in January, so we’ve reached a moment in the calendar when it is safe to assume that many of you have faltered in your new year pledges to transform your life for the better.
It is one thing not to follow through on ambitious plans, but, unfortunately, for some of us, the disappointment of not matching up to unrealistic expectations can have the exact opposite effect of what we intended, i.e., if you resolved to quit junk food, the despair that can come with falling early can send you to the nearest fast food outlet you can find, and before you know it your daily food regime may be worse than it was before you started.
The core point being that sometimes when we think we are setting the bar high, we are actually setting it too high. And if we have set the bar too high, then we cannot hope to meet the standard we have set for ourselves. In essence, we almost guarantee failure before we start, and depending upon how we react to that failure, we may end up in a worse place or state than when we started.
So, how can we give ourselves the best chance of avoiding this kind of outcome, while still looking to make positive changes? Research tells us that if we set more modest goals, then we are far more likely to follow through than if we set an ambitious list of life-altering changes. Think of it in terms of evolution, not revolution. Gradual change is far more likely to lead to the desired outcome than looking to turn some element (or elements) of your life upside down overnight. And, crucially, over time a number of small changes can eventually make a large difference.
Let’s take the example of losing weight. Come January, many of us feel the need to drop the pounds, either because we overindulged over the Christmas period or perhaps there has been a long-standing weight issue that you have finally decided to grapple with. In our late-December zeal for all the good we will do come January, someone might pledge to drop, perhaps, two stone in three months. The reality is, that level of weight loss requires a massive commitment and serious change. Most people who make a pledge of that sort will struggle, and early disappointment could see the quest derailed. But, what if someone pledged to lose two stone in 12 months, looking to average seven pounds every three months. Suddenly, the target for the first quarter of the year becomes much more manageable. Not easy, let me stress, but this hypothetical scenario highlights the key point – make your goals less extreme in the short-term and you may well achieve the desired outcome over the long-term.
The reasons why the gradual pursuit of modest goals is more likely to prove effective are many and varied. The instinctive answer may be to say that it is easier to achieve our goals when we set the bar low. That may be so, but it is an observation, not an explanation.
Just a few of the explanations are:
- Many of us are world-class procrastinators. By targeting more modest goals, we give ourselves the best chance of side-stepping that tendency.
- Big goals mean tapping into our willpower. Most of us tend to struggle on this front. Smaller goals can involve behavioural tweaks, as opposed to wholesale change. The former relies less on willpower than the latter.
- If we set big targets, we are more likely to announce them to friends and family. The act of doing so can give us a sense of accomplishment, almost as if we have succeeded before we even start. In this situation, we can give ourselves a cognitive reward before we put in the work, which can make it harder for us to motivate ourselves when the time actually comes. We don’t tend to broadcast more modest goals, which translates into a greater chance of following through.
If you had an ambitious list of New Year resolutions for 2017, and have already found yourself struggling or worse, there is no need for despair. Create a new list. Make it shorter, make the goals modest and achievable, and start all over again. We invest a lot of meaning in the relationship between January 1 and change, but that date is somewhat arbitrary. Yes, making the connection between a specific point in the calendar and change can help on a certain level, but that only means as much as we choose for it to mean. And if you insist on making that connection, then so be it. It’s still January, after all!
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.