A Happy New Year to you and yours! Around the planet millions of people are making, or have made, New Year’s Resolutions. But will they stick?

This is a 101 on how to make those promises last. It was prompted by a tweet from the man behind Thinking DigitalHerb Kim, and from reading a piece in The Times of India.

“A study has found that most people who make New Year’s resolutions fail to keep them within one week of starting.”

Well, we’ve got to do something about that before it’s too late haven’t we?!? John Norcross, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, says that the tradition of New Year’s Resolutions probably began with the ancient Romans, who would “make promises of good conduct to Janus, the two-faced deity who looked both backward and forward” and presided over beginnings and endings. I’ll come back to professor Norcross in a bit, but first, a quick think about those resolutions…

You Resolved to Do What?

New Year’s resolutions come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Every year, the FranklinCovey group conducts a survey of its customers’ resolutions. This year is the 5th, and although the 1,007 respondents are in the US, the patterns in the top 10 are globally recognisable:

  1. Improve financial situation.
  2. Lose weight.
  3. Develop a healthy habit (e.g. healthy eating, exercise).
  4. Change employment.
  5. Develop a regular savings plan.
  6. Break an unhealthy habit (e.g. smoking, alcohol, overeating).
  7. Spend more time with family and friends.
  8. Other.
  9. Get organized.
  10. Develop a new skill or talent.

It has shuffled around a little since last year (when “get organized” was at number 4), but the pattern is the same. The goals are about achieving something, doing something, changing a behaviour, making a habit or breaking a habit. Those are distinctly different types of challenge, with different ways of reaching them.

How Are You Going to Do That?

It boils down to this:

  • Revisit your goals regularly.
  • Think about the process as well as the goal itself.
  • String goals along a timeline.
  • Set yourself a reward.

You knew I couldn’t go too far into this post without mentioning Milestone Planner didn’t you? Having a place to write down your goals and a way of charting progress towards them on a timeline is a basic essential – that’s why you can do that even with a free guest account (but as it’s the New Year you should treat yourself to at least a trial of the professional edition ;) ). This time last year, we wrote a post about building a plan for the year. It’s still one of the most popular ones on the blog.

If your resolution is an outcome, which is not a bad starting point, then think about the process and specific actions that will make it happen. In Milestone Planner, goals live at the end of a workstream, milestones plot the key events on the way to achieving them, and milestones can be broken down into actions.

Why do people abandon resolutions? Often we’re discouraged when results aren’t immediate, or  satisfying. Change requires a sustained effort and commitment, and it is all too easy to procrastinate and put things off until ‘tomorrow’, so MAKE A START NOW! Sorry about the caps lock there, but now really is the best time – login, fire up the timeline, click and add your goals, then add the first action for each of the milestones you create.

Keep on Going

There’s a little bit of controversy on this next bit. I said that I would come back to professor Norcross, and I haven’t mentioned Herb’s tweet yet. The tweet was to a TED talk by Derek Sivers, where he advocates keeping your goals to yourself. I have to completely disagree with him. He cites a study by Gollwitzer in 2009 (this one in fact – pdf) that suggests that making goals public causes people to be less motivated to achieve them.

Gollwitzer’s study actually relates to identity-related behavioural intentions – an academic way of saying goals that relate to how you want to be seen. If you tell people that you want to be a doctor, then obviously you are going to feel a little bit like you have become a doctor, as you have taken a first step. The study is situation, and doesn’t look at the long-term effects of sharing

A long-term study by Richard Wiseman – who is also mentioned in that piece in The Times of India – suggests the opposite :- In his research telling others increased women’s chance of keeping resolutions by 10%. His participants benefited from family and friends encouraging them to stick to their goals, something that the 43things site majors on. In a piece in the tips section, author Lia Steakley Dicker suggested the following six tips:

  • Be deliberate – rather than impulsive, goals made up on the spot aren’t often keepers.
  • Leave the past behind – something Wiseman suggests too. Don’t be defined by past failures.
  • Stay positive – It is easier to do something (new), than to stop doing something!
  • Shorten the deadline – many sources suggest breaking the year down. How about 90 days, or a month at a time?
  • Define the obstacles – preparing for challenges ahead of time will make them easier to overcome.
  • Go public with your plans.

Back to Norcross; He says that those who “made a public commitment instead of a private decision to change” before New Year’s and were “genuinely confident that they could keep their resolution despite a few [inevitable] slips” were much more likely to succeed in the long run (you can hear him speaking about it on NPR in Radio 2008). Which leads me on to an important fact…

You Will Fail

A long-term study by the University of Washington found that only 40 percent of people who stick to their No. 1 resolution did it on the first try. The rest had to try multiple times; 17 percent finally reached their goal after more than 6 attempts.

Failure is just a small step on the journey to success. In the end your persistence will pay off – giving up is one of the biggest causes of failure! Plans are an aim, not an absolute. They can be amended, corrected and adjusted. If things go off track, accept the fact and adjust accordingly.

Changing behaviours – breaking old habits or creating new ones – is a long journey. One of the most well known approaches to change is the “Stages of Change” model, developed by James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente in the late 70’s, as they studied ways to help people quit smoking. The model accepts that relapses are an inevitable part of the process of making a lifelong change.

Relapse is just a phase. You can read the full transtheoretical model on wikipedia – knock yourself out ;). The shortened version: Pick yourself up; Get back to your plan; Keep calm, and carry on.

“Not Just a Better Me, a Better Us”

The biggest goals are achieved when we work together. That’s why Milestone Planner is social software. It’s much more fun when we do things together with other people, they provide the support and resource that’s required to make big changes. Working in a team also means that you get to see how what you are doing fits into a bigger picture – something that all of the researchers mentioned here would probably agree is a good motivator.

Have a Successful Year!

What do you want? When do you want it? What are the steps towards making it happen? Start now!

If you are interested in reading more, I highly recommend Professor Wiseman’s  ”59 Seconds: Think A Little, Change A Lot” (Amazon UK, Amazon US) – and you are signed up to Milestone Planner, and about to build that plan aren’t you?