Essay

Instead of a New Year’s Resolution, Do This

By Duff McDuffee on December 30th, 2016 1

Recently on a forum I’m part of, someone asked a question about New Year’s Resolutions. Very few people who set a resolution succeed, and this person was wondering how to improve their chances of success.

Here was my answer:

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I have quite a few thoughts about this.

First off I think most people’s resolutions or goals are far too vague, e.g. “lose weight” vs. “track calories, do food prep on Sundays, and eat according to my macro plan determined by my coach with a cheat meal on Saturday night until I reach my goal weight of 150lbs at 12% bodyfat, before then purposely bulking to gain strength.” The former is a vague intention with no criteria for success, no plan to accomplish it, and no plan for what happens after accomplishing it.

Next, most people’s goals involve mostly things outside of their control and thus are subject to chance, e.g. “double my income” vs. “work on marketing for my business 5 hours a week.” You can’t do a goal that is outside of your control, you can only hope for it and then be disappointed if you don’t get it. You can’t even “lose weight,” not directly. You can track calories in an app, weigh your food, move your body more frequently, and so on, but you can’t directly control your bodyfat levels. If you do everything you can and still don’t achieve your outcome, it is feedback to consider when changing your approach, or otherwise deciding to abandon your goal.

People put most of their focus on the outcome — fantasizing about it. The research shows this backfires by decreasing motivation (see Gabrielle Oettingen’s excellent book Rethinking Positive Thinking). What actually works, according to research, is similar to the NLP Outcome Frame which is to specify a desirable, feasible outcome, then contrast that with steps to get there and importantly, plans for overcoming obstacles that you anticipate. In my experience, coming up with these contingency plans takes a lot of time but makes it far more likely that you will accomplish your goal. As this is a lot less fun than fantasizing and imagining that you will effortlessly achieve a difficult personal outcome, most people skip this all-important step.

And finally, people rely far too much on willpower and not nearly enough on making things automatic. NLP tools are all about making changes stick automatically. There are also research-based tools such as if-then planning: if I encounter sensory-specific cue X, I will do action Y! Or you can use the tiny habits formulation: after X, I will Y!

For example: “after I get home from work, I will put on my workout clothes!” This is the tiny habit that got me to exercise 5 days a week. The goal wasn’t to exercise 5 days a week, it was to put on my workout clothes immediately after getting home from work. Once I did that, working out followed automatically.

Choosing too many challenging goals to work on at once is also a kind of optimism about one’s limited willpower resources. Better to pick 1 or 2 and nail them than to pick a dozen and fail at them all.

So to summarize:

1. Instead of a vague intention, make a specific action plan that with criteria for success and what happens after you achieve your goal.

2. Make your goal to do the things in your control. If you are doing that and learning from feedback, you are successful.

3. Instead of fantasizing about how easy and awesome it will be, create a highly desired and realistic outcome, fantasize for just a moment to build desire, then immediately think about what stands in your way and make detailed contingency plans for what could go wrong. Take as much time as needed to do this.

4. Make it automatic. Use if-then plans or after-then plans. Use NLP or hypnosis to install it so it doesn’t require willpower. And don’t pick too many goals at once.

If you want a coach to help you achieve a challenging goal in 2017, you can find out more about my services here.

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