Tips from a Motivation Scientist

As a motivation scientist and health/self-care coach who has spent the past 23 years researching how to design sustainable health behavior change, I’ve always been fascinated by our cultural ritual to create resolutions for the New Year. Every year, filled with post-holiday enthusiasm, millions of people make the same hopeful, buoyant New Year’s Resolutions—only to watch them quickly deflate and fall flat, like cheap helium balloons. This is such a common occurrence that for many it’s a given that their resolutions will only last a short time, yet they make them over and over. Why does this happen?

1. People resolve to change their behavior inside a post-holiday bubble of overindulgence and wild hope for the future.

Delicious Christmas sweets

The holidays are starting earlier and earlier, and many people begin overindulging even before Thanksgiving. They feel gross, out of control, and ashamed, and in that extreme activated state they resolve to go on a strict diet and punishing exercise regimen—forgetting that their new behavior has to survive their real life. As everyday tasks and responsibilities demand time and effort, the resolution bubble bursts and the heat of urgency cools.

  • Tip: Plan for an achievable small change rather than a grandiose goal. Bigger is not better when it comes to Resolutions.
  • Tip: Think long-term. Real change needs to last a lifetime. So how do you start a change when forever is the new goal? (Take this quiz to assess how likely your 2017 New Year’s Resolutions are to stick.)

2. People do the same old thing without thinking critically about why those approaches and strategies didn’t work last time.

New year Resolutions Note
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It’s easy to fall back on previous behaviors, or depend on technology and gadgets and the-new-found-but-very-temporary motivation. And it’s equally easy for people to blame themselves for lack of willpower when their strategies don’t help their resolutions make it through January. Thinking critically beforehand about why past strategies, including products and services, failed can yield some powerful insights about what might work better this time around.
  • Tip: Add one change at a time. With limited cognitive resources and a lot on your plate, attempting to make multiple changes simultaneously, such as planning to exercise and drastically change your diet, sets most up to fail.
  • Tip: Don’t rely on a tech fix. Technology can track your activity, but the willingness do the activity is always self-generated.

3. People focus on losing (weight, flab) instead of gaining (well-being).

Senior couple mountain biking on a forest trail, low angle

The “why” that undergirds people’s resolutions is crucial for sustainable success. An easy way to spot a wrong why is that it makes the new regime feel like a chore—it is depleting to do it and even to think about, and because of that, it derails plans. In contrast, the right why has a chance of lasting a lifetime because it aims to boost well-being and feels like a gift. Because it renews energy instead of depleting energy, the exercise itself reinforces doing it again, and again, and again. . .

  • Tip: Replace the traditional health, weight-focused, or chore-based resolutions with resolutions aiming to cultivate fun and happiness. This is the same strategy that smart marketers use to create repeat customer behavior—and it works. Why not harness human nature rather than go against it?
  • Tip: Reflect on the idea that self-care behaviors like exercise are really essential fuel to help you accomplish what matters most. Self-care is not selfish; it’s very, very strategic. Just ask Arianna Huffington.

4. People see “success” as a bullseye rather than as a continuum.

Young family running

Inside the bubble, the bullseye seems bright and clear: do 40-minute workouts five days a week; lose 50 pounds. But these rigid goals set people up to fail when real life inevitably starts throwing curve balls. A more enduring solution is to re-think success as a continuum. Hitting any part is worth celebrating.

  • Tip: Aim for consistency of your target behavior (e.g., meditation, more sleep, or exercise) rather than hitting goal numbers.
  • Tip: It’s not all over just because you missed a day—even the smallest effort counts. Research shows that self-compassion is much more motivating that negative self-judgment.

5. People don’t expect plans to go awry.

What!? I got my own snack

Life has a way of derailing even our best-laid plans, but for some reason we rarely take this into account when we make our resolutions. We think of weight or exercise goals as “things to achieve” rather than “things that must be continually navigated and negotiated.”

  • Tip: Plan for distractions. Pilots have flight simulations, surgeons have checklists—it makes perfect sense to think through life events that could interfere with your plans, and strategize alternate approaches ahead of time. This evidence-based strategy really works!
  • Tip: Embrace alternatives. Remember that when you’re unable to do what you had planned, doing something else for your well-being counts bigtime too. Why aim for perfection when good enough is waiting?