Sticking with a resolution

12 January, 2022 | 7 min

According to YouGov, about a quarter of us will make a New Year’s resolution each year. And according to a bunch of clever scientists, people are not particularly good at sticking to them. Most of us understand the emotional cycle of failed new year’s resolutions – high optimism at the outset, good intentions all round, solid start, followed quickly by frustration and misery, ultimately ending with a mental reframing to justify why it wasn’t something we really wanted in the first place.

Why is it so hard to make change stick, and what can we do to improve our chances of a sustainable improvement in our behaviour?

We want to get better

Atomic Habits by James Clear was Amazon’s number 1 selling book in 2021 (and therefore, it was probably the number 1 selling book in world), for a reason. Beyond it being a wonderful read, the subject matter explains in detail how to build good habits and eliminate bad ones. It was popular because most of the time, we want to get better. We want to feel that we are improving, we may not actually spend much time doing anything to improve, but the stories we tell ourselves are ones of continual improvement.

When all is said and done, a lot more is said than done.

We want to get better – but it’s hard. Making a change for one day (or may be the first few days of January) is easy, making change stick is hard. After the initial enthusiasm, we often fall back on our old behaviour within a couple of weeks (or less!) Old behaviours are old for a reason – we’ve repeated this behaviour over and over and therefore the pattern is locked in. Unlocking and building new, improved behaviour is hard, but there are several things we can do to improve our chances of success.

3 steps to sticking with a high-performance resolution:

  1. Don’t run from something bad, move towards something better.

One of the main problems with the classic ‘weight-loss’ resolutions is the focus on denying ourselves something (usually calories aka food!) Removing things, denying ourselves, stopping something we like, is hard. However, the same behaviour framed as gaining something, achieving something, is more sustainable – ‘I am a healthy eater’, ‘I will eat 5 potions of fruit and veg a day’ etc are better than listing what you are not going to do. Moving towards something positive can be energising and inspiring. Keep a mental picture of the thing you want to be – a strong vision of yourselves in a positive future.

2. Focus on who you are, as well as what you do.

One of the key outputs of James Clear’s work is the understanding that attaching a behaviour change to our identity is key. We need to define ourselves by the new standard. If the resolution is a career change, talk about yourself in terms of the new career. Getting that promotion to manager level for example is easier once we define ourselves as a manager, and we align our behaviour in ways that match ours (and other people’s) expectations of what a manager is. As a wise person once said, if you want to be a CEO, the first thing you need to do is act like a CEO.

3. Do it with a social group.

In addition to the benefits of telling others about our resolutions – triggering our inner need for commitment and consistency – working with a social group where we share a social identity can also have a powerful impact on our behaviour. Told in wonderful prose by Dominic Packer and Jay Van Bavel in The Power of Us, the influence of our group identities is profound. What we can learn from this to establish meaningful change is, for example, that joining a cycling club and becoming a cyclist will be more meaningful to us (and therefore we are more likely to sustainably change our behaviour) than buying an exercise bike and training alone. ‘I am a cyclist just like those other cyclists’ will have a more meaningful impact on our ability to sustain behaviour change than committing to ourselves to cycle 5 miles each day.

Making our resolutions a part of us will help us stick with it more having a list of things to do.

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Jimmy Kelly

Jimmy works with organisations, leaders, and teams to deliver high performance cultures, effective leadership, and collaborative teamwork.

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