Reassessing your New Year’s resolutions

goal setting
Stanford education scholars outline strategies for achieving your goals in 2017. (Photo: turgaygundogdu/Shutterstock)

More than 40 percent of Americans who made New Year’s resolutions abandon them in a matter of weeks — a number that will rise to 90 percent. If you are among them, listen to some good advice from scholars at the Graduate School of Education who study human development and behavior through learning.

They say the annual New Year’s resolution ritual is based on a misguided notion that people can change overnight as long as they have the willpower. Failure seems only to confirm that old adage that people don’t change.

“The problem is that we put such a heavy, ‘pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps’ burden on ourselves with New Year’s resolutions,” says JELENA OBRADOVIC, an assistant professor whose research focuses on psychological development.

External obstacles are often the primary culprits. Maybe someone doesn’t have access to affordable child care to follow through on those Pilates promises, or work demands become all-consuming. Obradovic says, “To really change, and to have it persist, sometimes those barriers have to change as well.”

DANIEL SCHWARTZ, dean of GSE and an expert on human cognition, agrees. “People change all the time, at any age,” he says. “But it’s not a question of willpower. The key to maintaining your resolutions is to use your environment in creative ways to support you.”

First, reassess your goals to make sure they are reasonable. GSE professor DEBORAH STIPEK, who has done extensive research on how teachers, coaches and bosses can motivate people, says people won’t make an effort when they think the odds of success are anything less than 50-50. Closely related to that is a sense of control over the outcome. “Without the belief that you will succeed or that you have power over the result, you won’t make the effort,” says Stipek.

Modest steps can help inspire that confidence. GEOFFREY COHEN, an education and psychology professor, knows, for example, that people don’t develop and grow if they feel inadequate. Small steps that help reassure people of their adequacy at difficult moments can go a long way.

Be careful about using rewards as a motivating tool. Sweeteners can backfire, according to Schwartz. Studies have shown that if the objective is to push yourself to change, then the promise of a prize can easily become the end game. Done right, rewards target behaviors — not outcomes.

Also effective: simple strategies like putting Post-It notes on the fridge or tracking your progress on a calendar.

Maintaining a sense of purpose in the face of temptation and other adversity is key to achieving goals. But doing that successfully requires people to manage stress and emotions, which are skills known as executive functioning that Obradovic has studied in depth in children and adult parents.

Much of the development of these skills happens in childhood. But people can develop or strengthen them at any age, says Obradovic. Practicing mindfulness through meditation or other methods is a great way to minimize stress and promote self-regulation.

Read the entire story on the Graduate School of Education website.