Your New Year's Resolutions Will Fail (Again) - Unless You Do This
Thursday, January 01, 2015 - Filed in: General Interest
This article was written by Stephen J. Meyer and appears in the Forbes website.
New Year’s Day is just ahead and we’ll all set off on the road to hell; you know, the one paved with good intentions.
We’ll set goals and truly believe that we will lose weight, go to the gym, increase our sales, get a new job, spend more time with the kids or something else.
No we won’t. We’ll keep pigging out, avoiding exercise, posting average sales numbers, tolerating our crummy jobs, and opting to work late.
How do I know? Because studies show that good intentions account for only 20% to 30% of variance in behavior. One recent study even showed that the more positive we are about our good intentions, the worse results we’ll get.
So, the best predictor of what you’ll do in 2015 isn’t what you say you’ll do on January 1.
It’s what you actually did in 2014.
But’s it’s not hopeless
I’d be a hardened pessimist if not for one thing – there’s a magic bullet that can bridge the gap between goal intentions and goal accomplishment.
It’s what behavioral psychologists call “implementation intentions.” Ugly phrase, I know. But it could be the difference between achieving your goals in 2015 and failing miserably.
Tons of research exists on “implementation intentions.” In one landmark study, researchers pooled subjects who intended to start exercising and assigned them to three groups. The Control Group got no input from the researchers. The Experiment Group 1 received educational materials correlating exercise and good cardio-vascular health. And the Experiment Group 2 stated its “implementation intentions” by filling out this form:
During the next week I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on (day or days) _______________ at _______________ (time of day) at/in (place) _______________.
I assumed the group that got the educational materials would win. I didn’t think filling in a few blanks on a form would make a difference. But look at the results:
Ninety-one percent of the participants in Experiment Group 2 – the ones who wrote down their “implementation intentions” – exercised. Only 29% of the control group and 39% of those who read the health literature exercised.
The results seem implausible. How could writing down what you intend to do make such a big difference?
It’s no surprise to Peter M. Gollwitzer, a psychologist at New York University who’s been studying goal achievement since about 1980. His research has revealed the curious power of implementation intentions, which are anchored by “if-then” statements like the one that’s implied in the form the Experiment 2 participants filled out – “If Tuesday at 8 a.m. arrives, then I will go to the gym.” An implementation intention doesn’t just get specific about the goal. It gets specific about when and where you’re going to do things that will help you achieve it.
Gollwitzer writes in a just-published article that “goal intentions” – even very specific ones such as “I’m going to reach X” – usually don’t succeed. But those “if-then” statements do succeed because they “link critical situational cues with instrumental goal-directed responses.” In other words, Gollwitzer writes, “If situation Y is encountered, then I will perform the goal-directed response Z.”
I called Gollwitzer at NYU and asked him why our brains process if-then statements so differently from mere goal intentions. “When you have a goal intention – ‘I want to achieve an outcome’ – the ‘I’ is in the middle of it,” he said. “It’s a top-down regulation of action. It’s me who regulates where I want to go. The if-then plan delegates the control to an external stimulus. It links the situation to the response, so it’s the stimulus, not you, that controls the action. It’s a switch from top-down to bottom-up.”
That’s the magic of writing down if-then statements – they automate the response. They effectively trick our brains. You do what you said you were going to do unconsciously, very much like a habit.
The irony is that to get this unconscious action to take place, you have to take the very conscious step of figuring out the specific situations where you want to trigger a response, then writing down your plan. “The forming of the plan is conscious,” Gollwitzer explains. “The execution is unconscious.”
I put implementation intentions to the test recently. I wrote down on a Sunday night that Monday, Wednesday and Friday of the coming week I’d go to the gym and up my 20 minutes on the treadmill to 30 minutes. On Monday I achieved my goal. On Wednesday I woke up tired and really didn’t feel like exercising. But I went to the gym. After 15 minutes on the treadmill I started telling myself I wasn’t going to make it.
But I’d anticipated this and back on Sunday night I deployed a related implementation intentions trick. I composed a second note to myself: “If I get to the point where I want to quit, then I will focus intently on my audiobook and tune out the pain and fatigue I’m feeling.”
I was able to do that. At the 15-minute mark, I flipped a switch and immersed myself in Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake, eyes closed. I had an IV to narrator Campbell Scott, hearing not just the story but also his phrasing, the timbre of his voice. When I finally opened my eyes the timer on the treadmill showed 10 minutes had passed. I’d busted through the barrier. The last five minutes were easy. On Friday I hit my goal again.
Okay, what’s that prove? It was just one week. But I can attest that even though I didn’t want to go on Wednesday, I never came close to caving. I’d written it down. I’d committed. My brain complied. And the audiobook trick worked surprisingly well when I encountered an obstacle.
Gollwitzer cites a number of surprising studies proving that implementation intentions work. In one, students were asked to write an optional paper over Christmas break. Of those who wrote down when and where they’d write the paper, two-thirds of them did it. Of those who did not create implementation intentions, none completed the task.
Studies have demonstrated that implementation intentions helped people not just get started but stay on track when trying to recycle, vote, lose weight, conduct medical self-evaluations, take daily medication and ride public transportation.
Gollwitzer says implementation intentions have the potential to help us manage people in the workplace as well. Most managers rely on the well-known S.M.A.R.T. model – creating goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. That model is better than nothing but, observes Gollwitzer, “the distance between goal setting and goal attainment is often long.”
To bridge that gap, Gollwitzer suggests that managers can get their team members to draft if-then statements that map desired actions to trigger events. And then draft a second set of if-then statements describing what they’ll do when they encounter inevitable obstacles.
Back to those New Year’s resolutions. In the next month we’ll do the easy work of setting goals for 2015. Just like we always have. But maybe this time we’ll trick our brains with if-then statements. For some crazy reason the gray matter between our ears responds to these statements automatically, without conscious intent. And – surprise – we actually do what we said we were going to do.