With the turn of a New Year, for some comes the new year resolutions. Whether it’s weight loss, stopping smoking, reducing alcohol intake or simply to read more, many people use a new year for self-improvement. However, despite these intentions, most people will not achieve their goal. Could psychology provide the answer to creating and sticking to your new year resolutions?
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Some argue that good intentions will lead to good actions, with everyday tasks relying on this notion, for example, ‘I intend to go to the supermarket today’ or ‘I intend to visit a friend after work’. However, not all intentions, no matter how strong-willed, result in action.
Many people in January intend to give up smoking, commit to a vegan diet, or lose a stone in weight, however for some; no results are achieved. Research has found a large gap between individuals’ intended and actual behavior, particularly in those wanting to exercise more or eat healthily. Furthermore, it has been observed that sole intentions are not sufficient to ensure goal-directed behavior.
One explanation as to why intentions don’t always lead to reaching a goal or resolution is that goal striving depends upon psychological resources such as memory, attention, and self-control. Due to these being limited, when resources are low, self-regulatory issues may occur which may adversely affect reaching a goal. If you are tired or focused on other things, you may forget your intentions or miss opportunity to act on your intentions.
Turning goals into actions
One method that can be used to turn goals into actions is to plan when, where and how you want to act towards a goal using an ‘if-then’ format, for example, If Y happens then I will do X. For example, for those wanting to eat more healthily they might suggest that “when I’m at home and feel like I want a cake, I will eat fruit instead”. This type of implementation intention can be beneficial for individuals as well as group to reduce the gap between their intentions and actions.
By deciding on a ‘plan B’ in advance, a goal becomes more accessible in an individual’s memory which increases the likelihood that when the situation is encountered that they will act upon their intention. An ‘if-then’ plan can automate working towards a goal by shifting from top-down to bottom-up processing. This is achieved by linking the situation to goal-directed behavior which is activated automatically when encountering the situation.
How to make goals more achievable
As well as setting goals using the if-then format, there are a few other things to consider in order to increase the probability of achieving your resolution.
Set smaller and fewer goals
Based on behavioral psychology, it may be more useful to set smaller short-term goals that when achieved can provide positive reinforcement. This reinforcement might motivate you more due to the sense of achievement and boost your goal-striving behavior further and enhance self-efficacy.
Psychological resources such as self-control can be affected if you are focused on other activities, therefore it might also be beneficial to ensure that you aren’t trying to focus on many resolutions at once. Setting fewer goals may allow you to strive for success.
Researchers argue that social support can be extremely beneficial in changing behavior. For those wanting to lose weight, your significant others can have a critical role in encouraging healthy behavior and reinforcing changes.
A common method used to increase the likelihood of achieving goals or resolutions is to make them SMART. Under SMART, goals need to be Specific, Measurable, Acceptable, Realistic and Time-bound. It is argued that creating SMART goals serves as a subconscious primer for the completion of goals. Priming behavior is thought to increase the probability of acting on your intentions due to an increase in motivation, commitments and focus.
No matter what your new year resolutions are, there are several psychological strategies that can be adopted in order to break the tradition and to stick to and achieve your goals for the year.
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Do implementation intentions help to eat a healthy diet? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the empirical evidence.
Promoting the translation of intentions into action by implementation intentions: behavioural effects and physiological correlates.