Making Resolutions Stick

This is the first of 2 articles on the topic of “promoting lasting change.”
Click here for part 2.

Every year in December, many of us look toward the New Year with expectation. It can be very easy to make New Year’s resolutions in the heat of this enthusiasm.

But how can we prevent the frustration of an unticked list of goals, or an unused gym membership in 2018?

Toward the end of the first term of our school-based projects we look at how we can set goals and resolutions that we can actually accomplish. The ability to do this is a crucial aspect of good judgement, and is important for fulfilling our dreams and wishes, it is also related to higher academic and professional success, and how we can grow in character.

We loved talking this through with our young people and helping them set some brilliant goals for themselves.

Here are four key tips we’d like to share with you as well…

Make your goals specific, measurable and action-based

A vague goal like ‘I will get better marks next term’ is unlikely to lead to a change in behaviour. In our projects, we practiced formulating this goal in words that are more likely to lead to a change in behaviour. Young people came up with goals such as: “Next term, I will take careful notes in Maths and take 10 minutes every night to review them, on top of doing my homework” and “Whenever I don’t understand something, I will make sure to ask my teacher about it.”

They know exactly what they would like to improve, and how to make changes to reach their goals.

With specific resolutions like these, it is much easier for us to monitor how we are doing and hold ourselves accountable.

Make sure your goals are realistic and achievable

Aim to change one behaviour at a time, one day at a time. Start with small changes, to make sure your goals are something you can achieve, and break down the goals into smaller steps that will help you get there.

Bring other people in

It is a lot easier to achieve our goals if we can share our struggles and successes with someone else. Other people can help make sure that we are doing what we set out to do. They can provide us with support, monitor our behaviour and keep us focused on our goal.

In our projects, young people wrote the name of one adult who they chose as their ‘supervisor’ for the Christmas holiday. This adult would ensure that the young people are sticking to the goals they set for themselves, and will write comments on how they are doing.

Make your goals personal and linked to your identity

Before we set goals in our projects, young people considered who they are and what roles they have in different areas of their lives, such as being a classmate, a pupil, a friend, a sibling, a football player, a son or a daughter. They thought about the different hopes they have for their identities in each of these areas.

Angela Duckworth, an expert on character development and behavioural change, suggests that you cannot work on your behaviour without working on your identity.

One way you can consistently change your behaviour is if you decide to change the way you think about yourself. By exchanging a can of coke for water, you may feel justified to order chips on the side. However, if you start from your identity, from who you are and who you want to be, this will affect your behaviour across different situations and make it easier to make changes. By thinking of yourself as someone who eats and drinks in a healthy way, choosing water over coke will become easier!

So instead of picking classic old resolutions that everyone seems to choose and that you never seem to keep, why not consider thinking about what your hopes are for yourself this year? What is an area of your life that could use some improvement, and how can you include your identity in your resolutions?

For more information on setting specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and action-based goals, see: Lawlor, K. B. (2012). SMART Goals: How the application of SMART goals can contribute to achievement of student learning outcomes. Developments in Business Simulation and Experiential Learning39.

For more from Angela Duckworth on the topic of behavioral change, listen to this podcast from earlier in 2017 on her project: “Making Behavior Change Stick”