New years resolutions science

The Psychology of Resolutions

In Blog, Science by Mandy Kaewsowatana0 Comments

Resolutions are easy to make but hard to keep. Why?

There’s an intricate cognitive process your brain goes through when you set any kind of goal for yourself, and resolutions are no exception.

In order to have a chance at achieving your goals, they must be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely. If you set unrealistic goals, you’re setting yourself up for inevitable failure; however, if your goals are attainable, you believe in yourself, and you have a support system rooting for you the entire way, then you’ve got yourself a road map to success.

Make Your Goals SMART

As I mentioned above, your goals must be SMART in order to even get a glimpse of accomplishment. What are SMART goals? new years resolutions fitness

Specific – Often, when we set goals, they tend to be grandiose dreams that realistically, we won’t ever accomplish. For instance, if your goal is plainly “to be healthy,” there’s a good chance this won’t happen. “Being healthy” is way too ambiguous. This could be interpreted in many ways; what one person deems “being healthy” could mean something completely different to another. “Healthy” in one person’s eyes could mean exercising seven days a week for three hours a day, all the while eating only junk food throughout the day. To another person, “being healthy” could mean to never move off the couch, but yet eat salad for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. These are both extremes, but we all know there should be a happy medium here. The goal to simply “be healthy” does not provide enough specifics and leaves room for too much ambiguity, too much to attempt, and thus room for inevitable failure. If you translate “to be healthy” as more nutrition-focused, now you have a more specific platform from which to build your goal. Taking this more focused approach, you could set the goal for yourself to focus on eating more fruits and vegetables every day. Research creative recipes and get yourself excited about tasting and preparing new types of produce.

Measurable – The goals you set should be measurable. In other words, your goals must have a tangible number or end to work up to. Let’s take the more specified example we used above to eat more fruits and vegetables. While this is a specific goal, the word “more” is not measurable. Establish a daily number of both fruits and vegetables to eat each day. For instance, aim to eat four servings of fruit and six servings of vegetables daily. This is measurable. If you only end up eating one piece of fruit and two vegetables one day, you know you have missed the mark; however, if you eat your targeted amount of produce in a given day, you know you’ve met that goal and you’re on the right track.

Achievable – Can you personally achieve the goal you set for yourself? If you originally envisioned “to be healthy,” obviously because this is an ambiguous, non-measurable task, it’s going to be difficult to achieve. When you fine-tune your goal to something measurable and specific, you can determine if it’s achievable for you. Is consistently eating four servings of fruit and six servings of vegetables daily something you can accomplish? If you loathe any food that looks remotely green and your idea of fruit is a Capri Sun, then you might need to adjust your measurables. Start off with eating two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables a day. You can always re-assess your goals as you progress. And again, if fruits and vegetables are not palatable to you, find appealing recipes that will tantalize your taste buds and give you a new reason to enjoy fruits and veggies.

Relevant – Why are you setting this goal? Does your goal directly relate to you, your interests, your areas of work, etc.? Does this goal correlate with other goals you have? Will this goal enable your long-term plans to come to fruition? If you don’t know why you are setting the goal to be healthy in the first place, it will be difficult to follow through. All actions are driven by motives. Are you wanting to be healthy because that seems to be the latest trend? Or are you personally invested in your goal to transform your health? Do you want to ward off disease, increase your chances of living longer, and be able to keep up with your children as they grow up? If you know your body will reap the benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables, and you want to live a long, prosperous life, then begin making fruits and vegetables a part of your daily cuisine. You may even develop an interest in exploring new ways to prepare produce! Pursue the things you are passionate about. Your smaller, short-term goals should feed into longer-term goals.

Timely – What timeframe have you set to accomplish this goal? This timely piece can make or break your goal. We’ve already established our goal to eat four servings of fruit and six servings of vegetables daily, but for how long? For the next week, month, year? What is a traceable amount of time for you to measure your progress? We want goals to be sustainable, so setting an initial goal to eat four servings of fruit and six servings of vegetables every day for the next three weeks might be a good place for you to start. It takes 21 days to create a habit, so why not create healthy habits? If after one month, you’ve accomplished your goal, extend that goal to another month, five months, a year….until eventually this goal becomes a sustainable way of living for you.

A self-fulfilling prophecy 

Albert Bandura, professor at Stanford University, originated the theory of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy refers to the confidence in yourself to achieve a task. Remarkably, your ability to follow-through and accomplish anything is significantly affected by your attitudes and thoughts. If you don’t trust or believe in yourself, you are almost guaranteed to fail. On the contrary, if you believe in yourself to accomplish a feat, you have a much greater prospect of success.

The 2002 edition of the Journal of Clinical Psychology details a 1972 Marlatt and Kaplan study, where groups of new year’s resolvers and non-resolvers were followed for periods of time. The outcomes of the study revealed that the individuals’ readiness to change and self-efficacy significantly contributed to short-term goal success.

This theory of self-efficacy is relevant in all areas of life, and in a way, contributes to the placebo effect as well. If you tell yourself the sugar pill is the cure to your cold, your cold will miraculously disappear; if you tell yourself the prescription your doctor wrote won’t help mitigate your headaches, your headaches will continue to linger. Our mind plays an incredible role in our overall well-being. We think our way into wellness.

Accountability – we all need someone to lean on

Remaining in isolation is dangerous for anything in general, but even more so for accomplishing goals. We all need accountability. A trusted friend or family member, or even a circle of people closest to you as a support system is vital. These are the folks you want holding you accountable for anything in life, whether it be goals, personal problems, or family issues. Humans are not meant to navigate life alone; we were created to be in community.

When we put our thoughts into audible words, they no longer remain as simply thoughts in our minds; rather, we are now held responsible for those very real words. Those once-thoughts now have consequences if acted upon or not acted upon, and our peers have the ability to hold us accountable to what we have voiced. Another player has entered the game. You are no longer hiding behind yourself.

If you vulnerably share your goals with a trusted friend, he or she can check in on your progress, encourage you in areas of growth, and advise you in any areas of wrong. Encouragement is especially important if you begin to feel your confidence diminishing.

You are your own biggest fan and your own biggest enemy. So, before you vow to make another New Year’s resolution, take a few moments to think about what you are doing and to properly establish a goal and believe in yourself to succeed.

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