Well, here we are again! We’ve arrived at that time when the calendar resets, we all write down the wrong number for a few months, and we feel inspired by the promise of a clean slate to change and begin anew.
For A Few Months, Gym Memberships Skyrocket, Sales Of Cigarettes Fall, And We Collectively Decide That This Year Is Going To Be “my Year.”
Studies have shown that people are much more likely to engage in aspirational behaviours during significant temporal landmarks such as a new year. This “fresh start effect” is an interruption in the routine of the day-to-day monotony, which creates an opportunity to reflect on our lives from a big-picture perspective (Dai et al., 2014). These times of reflection are an essential foundation for creating meaningful change by moving away from past patterns of behaviour that are no longer serving us, and moving toward what is more aligned with our true self.
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” ― Viktor E. Frankl, quoting Friedrich Nietzsche
Your “why” is the necessary foundation that meaningful change is built upon. In asking ourselves why we chose a particular resolution, we can find the ideal or value that drives our goal. Our values are like a compass; they point us in a direction, but they don’t represent a final destination (Hayes & Smith, 2005). Studies have found that taking the time to assess and understand our values improves performance when it comes to achieving our goals (Chase et al., 2013).
Below are a couple links that can help you start the process of examining your values:
A common New Year’s resolution is to “lose weight” or “eat healthier.” These are rather ambiguous goals that can be difficult to know how to put into practice on a consistent basis. If we reframe these as values of physical health/well-being, we can check where we’re at in relation to those values more regularly, and then create goals that target our present circumstances more specifically. Once we have a clear view of the direction we want to go in (value), we can begin to chart the course that will move us in that direction (goal-setting).
With a clear understanding of the purpose behind our goals, we can begin to strategize how to go about achieving them. A roadblock that can come up when we start this process is choosing long-term goals that feel so far away. Because they seem unattainable and overwhelming, it’s easy to give up when we realize that progress will be slow and steady. The way we work through this obstacle is by choosing a long-term goal and then breaking it down into smaller short-term goals, giving us those motivational boosts that come with a sense of accomplishment and progress. This is where using techniques like SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timely) goal-setting comes in handy. While these tools can be useful for a lot of people, an interesting cross-cultural study done in 2015 by researcher Gail Matthews broke down three steps that lead to a 33% increase in success rates compared to those who just thought about their goals (Matthews, 2015):
- Write them down: This allows us to look at a goal more objectively and explore different strategies to achieve it. Get creative! People have found success using mind maps, adding pictures and other visual representations. All of these can help clarify exactly what the goal is and how it connects to our values.
- Create action steps: Once we’ve identified and become clear on our goal, it’s important to break down the goal into small steps. Research has shown that simply focusing on or fantasizing about the goal being completed can reduce our energy toward achieving it (Kappes & Oettingen, 2011). Listing out each specific step, even if they seem obvious, gives us a reference point for what to do next when we feel stuck or run into the challenges that will pop up.
- Accountability: This is a two-part step that involves committing to the action steps and sharing those commitments, along with weekly progress reports, with a friend or group of friends. If trusted friends know about your commitments, it’s harder to forget about them or let them slide (especially if you know you’ll have to provide a progress report next week). This also creates an opportunity to reflect on and reassess goals. Instead of just giving up on a goal that doesn’t seem to be working out, going back to the drawing board with a friend allows us to continue to move toward our values and deepen meaningful connections in our life.
There’s one more piece that I think about when pondering resolutions…and that’s looking at whether it’s additive or subtractive. Put simply, is your goal creating an opportunity to take action and bring a new behaviour into your life (e.g., go to the gym 3x/week)? Or is it taking away a behaviour (e.g., stop drinking)? While both types of goals can be valuable, research has found that additive or “approach-oriented” goals are more likely to succeed compared to “avoidance-oriented” goals (Oscarsson et al., 2020). This is something I remind clients who struggle with addictive behaviours. If we just remove the behaviour that’s no longer serving us, it leaves a void in our life that can be easily filled with other unhelpful actions. It’s equally or more important to focus on the things that will replace those behaviours, enrich our lives, and move us toward being more aligned with our values.
It can be daunting to think about the ways we want to improve our lives. I know for myself it oftentimes leads to thinking about the ways I haven’t been doing so, eliciting feelings of shame and guilt. Something that helps me is to remember that the only time change happens is right now, in the present moment. Every day is a fresh slate, a new opportunity to create meaningful change in our lives. So whether you’re reading this in January or July, I hope you’ve discovered some practical tools and encouragement to create meaningful change in your life.
- Chase, J. A., Houmanfar, R., Hayes, S. C., Ward, T. A., Plumb Vilardaga, J., & Follette, V. (2013). Values are not just goals: Online ACT-based values training adds to goal setting in improving undergraduate college student performance. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 79-84.
- Dai, H., Milkman, K. L., & Riis, J. (2014). The fresh start effect: Temporal landmarks motivate aspirational behavior. MANAGEMENT SCIENCE, 1-20.
- Hayes, S. C., & Smith, S. (2005). Get out of your mind and into your life: The new acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
- Kappes, H. B., & Oettingen, G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 719-729.
- Matthews, G. (2015). The effectiveness of four coaching techniques in enhancing goal achievement: Writing goals, formulating action steps, making a commitment, and accountability. 9th Annual International Conference on Psychology, 25-28 May, 2015, Athens, Greece: Abstract Book, 41.
- Oscarsson, M., Carlbring, P., Andersson, G., & Rozental, A. (2020). A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PLoS ONE, 15(12), e0234097.