New Year's resolutions

Why you are probably failing at your New Year’s resolutions, and what you can do differently

How are you doing with your New Year’s resolutions? If you’re like most of us, chances are the answer is “not too well” — in fact, studies have found failure rates for beginning-of-the-year resolutions range from 60 to 90 percent.

Why such a dismal success rate? In her bestselling book Presence, professor Amy Cuddy offers several reasons. Among them:

For one thing, New Year’s resolutions are too ambitious. Setting big goals, such as getting straight As in school or working out three times a week, is a positive step in theory, but these goals are not designed in a way that actually allows us to build toward them. … And the long distance to the goal gives us a lot of opportunities to fail along the way — and that means more opportunity to give up. We tell ourselves there’s no point because we’ve already blown it.

And, yes, most of us have done this. I certainly have. Check out your neighborhood gym any January, and you’ll find it packed with people trying to become more fit or lose weight. Check the same gym in March or April, not so much.

Is there an alternative? Yes — and I know from experience that it works.

Dr. Cuddy calls the alternative “nudging” — making tiny, incremental changes while focusing on what we can do now rather than focusing on how far we have to go to reach the elusive goal. Nudging works for two reasons, she says: First, performing well is self-reinforcing. It helps us feel good about ourselves, and when we face the task a second time, we know that we have the competency we need. Second, as we act with confidence, we can get positive responses from others, which again make success easier.

Here’s how nudging worked for me: A few months ago, I decided I wanted to become more outgoing. Experts say not to set goals that aren’t quantifiable (how can you measure outgoingness?), but I was less interested in meeting some magical number than I was in doing something about being stuck in life where I was. I also knew developing my ability to be outgoing would be one step to help my meet my goals with job networking — something I had failed miserably at despite resolution after resolution. So I decided to follow Dr. Cuddy’s advice and go about two very simple nudges that I knew I could do:

  • Instead of spending my two breaks at work in front of a computer where I literally had my back to my coworkers, I would relocate myself during at least one of those breaks to a place where I could socially interact with them.
  • I decided that when I greet people I would greet them by name, and I would use their names when talking to them. I had noticed that many of the people I liked the most had done the same to me.

That’s not much, is it? In fact, many if not most of the people I work with already did those two things without ever trying or even thinking about it. But the results were nothing short of miraculous, and I don’t use the word lightly.

It didn’t take long at all for me to realize I had friends around me that I didn’t know I had. I’ve always been terrible at remembering people’s names, but suddenly, once I had a reason to learn people’s names, I found I could learn them easily. I increasingly found it easier to socialize with people I was meeting for the first time. And I started wondering how much I had missed all these years by not taking the opportunities in front of me almost every day to get to know the people around me. I’ve gained a desire to connect with people in ways I never have before.

I don’t want to oversell this concept of nudging. Other factors played into my success: For one, I had some changes in job responsibilities that game me more opportunities to interact with others. Also, I’m around some fantastic people who, even if they didn’t know it, were giving me encouragement all the way. In fact, I might attribute only about 10 percent of my success to any conscious decisions I made. But that’s part of the idea behind the concept: As we act in small ways, the reinforcement we get from others and ourselves can change who we are.

And that’s a lot more fun than failing at resolutions.

Photo by mt 23/Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0.

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