As we kiss another year good bye it’s time to start thinking about New Year’s resolutions and what we hope to accomplish in the months to come. If you’re like most people, when January rolls around, you spend at least a little time reflecting on your goals for the new year. Maybe you want to shed a few excess pounds, start an exercise program (gym membership sales usually spike in January and February,) or start working on that great American novel that’s been burning inside you.
If you’re better than most people, you might even write those goals down in bold letters and pin them up on your refrigerator or your bulletin board at work so you will be reminded of the goals you have set. To really show your commitment, you might even post your goals publicly (on your blog or facebook page, for example,) or announce to your family and friends your plans for greatness in the new year. Making these commitments, especially publicly, do help in getting you moving in the right direction. But they are not enough to bring you to the finish line by the end of the year.
Walter Mischel, a psychologist at Columbia University once said, “Goal commitment is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for goal attainment. Well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions—to adhere to that diet, to forgo tobacco, to become more attentive and caring toward a partner, to persist with regular breast self-examinations—are a first step, but unless implemented by effective self-regulatory mechanisms to sustain effortful control they easily fade away when the time comes to actually exercise the will.” His research suggests that the ability to stay focused on long term goals and resist the call of other more immediate gratifications is a critical skill for creating success in academics, work or relationships.
Deep down, you probably know that fulfilling these goals is going to require some hard work on your part. After all, if they were easy, you would have done them already, and wouldn’t need the formality of this New Year’s ritual. So the question becomes, do you have the will, the drive, the discipline to do what needs to be done to make your goals a reality? If you do, fantastic! And if you don’t, Roy Baumeister, another psychologist from Florida State has found that self regulation is “like a muscle” and you can develop it through practice and exercise. Sharpening your willpower on little goals will help you develop the strength needed to get your BHAGs (“Big Hairy Audacious Goals”) across the finish line.
But even sheer willpower is not enough, in and of itself, to bring these goals to the finish line. In addition to willpower, you will also need “waypower”. Peter Gollwitzer, a psychology professor from NYU defines waypower as “implementation intentions”. Gollwitzer makes a distinction between “goal intentions,” or the what people want to accomplish and the “implementation intentions,” which represent the how people will accomplish it. Most New Year’s resolutions are all what and no how.
Since most New Year’s resolutions lack even the simplest of plans for how to accomplish them, it is no wonder that they often do not progress beyond the stage of being written down and tacked up on the bulletin board. Even those eager beavers who actually do start real action toward their goal, are easily waylaid by the smallest hurdles or distractions. Sometimes all that is needed to prevent this, is some simple clarity about your plan for how you will handle these hurdles.
So if you scratched some goals down on the back of a napkin and have them posted up on your refrigerator door, it’s time to take them down and sharpen your pencil for a little more work. Ask yourself if you have the willpower required to get it done? Do you believe in yourself enough to know that you can get there? And then work on your implementation intentions. What is your simple plan to accomplish your goals and overcome any obstacles that get in your way? With willpower and waypower, you will be amazed at what you can accomplish!
References and recommended reading:
|Baumeister, R. F. & Vohs, K. D. (Eds. ; 2004). Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications. Guilford Press.
Miller, C. (2009). Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide. Sterling.
Prochaska, J. O., Norcross, J. C., & Diclemente, C. C. (1994). Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward. Quill.