What you can learn from a psychologist to stick to your New Year resolutions.
Psychologists work closely with their clients to set and achieve goals all year round, so naturally, they know a thing or two about making good habits stick. Here, we tap into their professional knowledge for nailing those New Year’s resolutions.
Set specific goals.
Keep it real
Don’t overload yourself with a mountain of must-dos, says Brisbane-based coaching psychologist Patrea O’Donoghue. “Often people set too many New Year’s resolutions, and it becomes far too hard to prioritise. It’s more effective to start with one to three. List a lot, then single out the ones you really want to nail. Tick them off, and then later you can move to the others.”
And be sure the time’s really right, adds Melbourne clinical psychologist Dr Jo Mitchell. “The best New Year’s resolutions are not made on New Year’s Eve or Day. They are thought about beforehand and a plan put in place. New Year just becomes the starting line for a commitment to behaviour change.”
Know your why
Dig deep to identify resolutions that truly resonate, advises Dr Mitchell. “Behaviour change is more successful when you connect it to your values. We need to understand why this behaviour is important to us. What does it say about who we are and what we stand for? For example, do you exercise to stay fit and healthy for your family, or as a way of connecting with friends? If it's not a meaningful goal then it just doesn’t stick.”
She adds: “An effective resolution is usually one that makes sense in the broader context of your life – it connects with your values, lifestyle and resources to put it in place.”
Psychologists agree that when it comes to goal setting, the devil’s in the detail. “If you set a vague goal, it won’t work,’ says Patrea O’Donoghue. “The brain doesn't operate on those fuzzy instructions.”
Says Dr Mitchell: “What is the behaviour you want to change? How often do you plan to do it, when and where? For example: I am going to meditate five days a week for 10 minutes, on the tram to work, with my headphones on and listening to the Headspace app.”
Clearly planned and visualised goal setting works best because it programmes our non-conscious brain to adopt habits, says O’Donoghue. “The non-conscious part governs so much of what we do, those automatic habits like cleaning your teeth in the morning. It’s the part of your brain that’s working without you being aware of it; for example, when you forget a name and then it pops into your head later, once you've stopped trying to remember it.”
She recommends US psychologist Gabriele Oettingen’s WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan) strategy, which involves imagining how it will look and feel to overcome obstacles and achieve your goal.
Make it positive
Patrea O’Donoghue advises using the ‘towards motivation’ to stick to your goals. “Rather than focus on what you don’t want to do, or what you want to get rid of, frame it positively,” she says. “Instead of saying you want to lose weight, you could say you want to aim to weigh 56 kilos. Instead of wanting to give up smoking, decide you want to be a fresh air breather, or to be able to run upstairs.”
Focusing on what you want to move towards rather than what you want to move away from or lose, she says, taps into that non-conscious sweet spot in your brain that drives habit forming. “How we frame our goals can tap into an endless source of drive and willpower,” she says.
Repeat… and repeat
“The more you repeat the behaviour, the easier it becomes,” says Dr Mitchell. “You’ll start to miss it if you have to skip a day. With time, your brain is going to have a hard time letting go of it. You will know you have been successful when you don’t have to think twice about the behaviour – it is simply a habit.”
And remember, says O’ Donoghue, that new habits don't stick overnight. “There isn’t one standard length of time to embed a new habit, but research has shown the average is 66 days,” she says. “And often it’s a lot longer than that, especially if you’re trying to change a lifetime habit. Goals happen because of small steps done repeatedly.”
Says Dr Mitchell: “If things seem to be getting in the way, instead of beating yourself up about it, be curious about what’s happening.
Perhaps, when you look closer, there’s emotional stuff coming up and blocking you.”
Be prepared to learn as you go, she says. “Adjust your plan if needed. Perhaps the tram to work is too crowded to meditate, so try the tram home, when you usually get a seat. Maybe four days is more realistic than five days?”
Be your own cheer squad
“Forming new habits is hard, so be kind to yourself as you get started,” says Dr Mitchell. “Praise your effort and if one strategy fails, have some self-compassion, reset and try again. If you have to skip a day or a workout it’s no biggie, just commit to the next opportunity. Don't beat yourself up about it – it might be the wrong time for you, so let it go.”
She recommends “a healthy dose of realism – change is hard, be prepared for setbacks and celebrate the successes.”
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