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New Year’s Resolutions for Change from the Inside Out

Strategies and goals

Jason Shen has an interesting blog I discovered only very recently. Entitled “The Art of A**-Kicking,” Shen’s blog focuses on “starting things, conquering fear and kicking a** in work and life.” In late 2010, Shen posted an article on New Year’s Resolutions that I highly recommend: “How to Set Great New Year’s Resolutions (Backed by Scientific Research!)

I’ve written about New Year’s Resolutions before (for instance, see “Should You Make a New Year’s Resolution?“, “Why New Year’s Is Such a Good Time to Make a Resolution” and “Taking Stock for a New Year’s Resolution“), and you’ll find a lot of common ground between my posts and Shen’s. What struck me most about Shen’s article, though, is his emphasis on making resolutions about the way you feel. This fits with much of what I know about how people successfully change their behavior, and it struck me as an unusually useful way to come up with a resolution.

Most resolutions seem to be about achieving some external result: losing weight, quitting smoking … that kind of thing. The examples Shen gives, on the other hand, are about changing how we feel about some significant part of our lives. They raise the question “What can I do to feel happier?” or “What would make my lifestyle feel more healthy?” By focusing on how the resolution makes us feel, we get two special advantages: first, we’re focusing on the process instead of the outcome, which tends to be a more motivating approach for a variety of reasons. Second, we’re making a special point of ensuring that the actions we’re taking make us feel the way we want to feel, and that good feeling motivates us to keep pushing ahead.

Examples of result goals and feeling goals
An example: let’s say my resolution is to lose weight; it’s 3 weeks in; and I’ve lost 1.5 pounds after upping my exercise and eating a little better. That’s not bad, but it’s not very inspiring: it doesn’t really feel like I’m succeeding, just maybe sort of a little on the road to succeeding. I’m putting all my enthusiasm into the idea that some time in the future, I will have achieved something big. In the mean time, which could be a very long time, I don’t have much good news to announce.

If instead, though, my resolution is to feel more fit, then every time I complete an exercise session or choose the better food option, I’ve succeeded. It’s not a big success, but successes don’t have to be big to feel good, and anything that makes us feel good is much more motivating than something that makes us feel like a disappointment, or at best a potential someday-success.

Not affirming affirmations
As much as I like Shen’s post, I had some comments to add for my readers here on a couple of thing he mentions. One is his recommendation of affirmations, which from what I’ve seen of the research are often counter-productive. One problem is that they risk creating broken ideas, and even though an affirmation may create an upbeat falsehood (“I look great and am easy to get along with!”) it’s still a falsehood and has all of the drawbacks a falsehood usually has when we treat it in our own minds as truth.

What’s a “goal,” exactly?
I also find Shen’s distinction between “goals” and “resolutions” potentially confusing, depending on how you think about the words. He defines goals as “external targets that rely substantially on things outside of your immediate control” and talks about “resolutions” as being largely within your control. For what he calls “goals” I tend to use words like “aspirations,” and what he calls “resolutions” I and many other people interested in motivation often refer to as “goals,” for instance in the posts “One Good Way to Judge Goals: S.M.A.R.T.” and “What Kinds of Goals Really Work?” With that said, a lot of people use the word “goals” to mean exactly what he describes, too, and I think the way he talks about using the words makes plenty of sense; it’s different from how the word is used in here and some other places.

Both of us, however, are trying to point out an important distinction that the English-speaking world doesn’t usually make, that of  whether we’re talking about something that we can affect ourselves (like finishing a project) instead of something that to a large extent is outside of our control (like getting a promotion).

One thing at a time
Finally, Shen recommends keeping your goals to no more than 2 or 3 at a time. I haven’t yet come across research to shed more light on the question, but my experience and my inference from some of the literature is that adding only one new goal at a time is generally the way to go. Once you’re well on your way with that one, adding another works much more comfortably. The danger of adding too many at once is that of not having enough attention to spare to focus regularly on any of the goals, so they all fail.

The exception to this would be very simple goals, like drinking more water or making the bed in the morning. It appears that we can tackle several small changes more or less at the same time and still see success.

Photo by pennstatelive

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