Willpower and Waypower: The Secret to Accomplishing All Your Goals for the New Year

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.

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8 Responses to Willpower and Waypower: The Secret to Accomplishing All Your Goals for the New Year

  1. Lisa Sansom January 4, 2011 at 11:36 am #

    Fabulous – as always! And might I add, there must be something in the research about not over-committing. It takes time, not just energy and effort, to create a new habit and meet a new goal. Sometimes that may mean saying “goodbye” to something old in order to make the time to usher in the something new. I know that I am horribly guilty at over-committing, so this is very present for me right now as I decide what I am crafting for 2011. Thanks for the timely and thought-provoking article!!

  2. Mark Henson January 4, 2011 at 11:11 pm #

    Great article!

    In addition to identifying the “what” and the “how”, achieving goals also requires you to discover and become what you need to BE to reach those goals. For instance, if you want to run a marathon, you can set the goal and create the plan in about 5 minutes (just Google marathon training plan and take your pick of the thousands already designed for you). But to complete a marathon, you need to BE certain things, like committed, healthy, focused, and a bit crazy. If you work on being those things first, then the how becomes much easier and faster.

    Thanks for the new thoughts for the new year.

  3. Jeremy McCarthy January 5, 2011 at 11:02 pm #

    Thanks Lisa, I’ve heard people say before that the secret to success is not so much in figuring out what to do but in figuring out what not to do. The people who are better at NOT doing the things that are not important to their goals are the ones that are successful.

  4. Jeremy McCarthy January 5, 2011 at 11:10 pm #

    Hi Mark, interesting perspective on this. So it would be the “what” the “how” and the “who.” This reminds me of the ideas of neurolinguistic programming that suggest to be successful at achieving something you should find someone else who has already achieved it and start modeling their behavior. Definitely adds an interesting layer to this.

  5. Marie-Josee Shaar January 6, 2011 at 11:56 am #

    I don’t want to add unnecessary complexity to your beautiful model, Jeremy, but I’d like to suggest that the why has a lot to do with it – probably even more than the who. To pick up on Mark’s example, someone who wants to be a marathon runner (healthy, committed, a bit crazy) in order to get their partner’s approval has lesser chances of sticking to it than someone who is running because they feel they might figure out some truth about themselves through the challenge. So the why is more important in my view. That’s not to say that 2 are necessarily different or mutually exclusive, BTW.

    And for those of us psychology fans, yes, I’m adding in the element of intrinsic motivation.

    Best of success to all readers who have made resolutions for 2011!


  6. Jeremy McCarthy January 6, 2011 at 9:59 pm #

    Hi Marie-Josee, Another good point. But you are giving me too much credit by calling my musings a model. Obviously, there are many things that all contribute to our abilities to be successful at goal setting and attainment. I would say “you could write a book on the subject,” but somebody already has. Our colleague Caroline Adams Miller and her book “Creating Your Best Life” provides research on all of the above and many more applications from the science of psychology towards goal accomplishment.

    Intrinsic motivation is an important one. Thanks, J


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