News • January 06, 2023

How to succeed (and give yourself grace) with new year’s resolutions

How to succeed (and give yourself grace) with new year’s resolutions

Riverside, Calif. (Jan. 6, 2023) – Many people start a new year making resolutions. They aim to start a good habit or stop a bad one.

However, studies show the failure rate in keeping a resolution is high. One study by statista showed only 22% of the respondents had stuck to their resolution a month into the new year.

We talked with Dr. Erin Smith, professor of psychology at California Baptist University, about making resolutions and taking different tactics to be successful in keeping them. Smith is the Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor of Research. Her research interests include the areas of science and religion, and teaching and learning.

By the way, one of her resolutions is to read through the Old Testament this year. (She read through the New Testament last year.)

Why do people make new year’s resolutions?

People make new year’s resolutions because they have a desire to change and a hope that this change is possible. Even though most resolutions fail, many people continue to set them. I sometimes wonder if our cultural fixation on resolutions (especially of the self-centered variety) can be understood as a misguided placement of the deep need for hope, renewal and transformation offered only by Christ.

In the language of psychological science, these goals that we desire and hope for start with things we value and believe to be attainable.

Why do people find resolutions difficult to keep?

Because behavior is hard to change! This is true for long-term and short-term change. Our commitment to goals waxes and wanes even within a single day. There are so many factors that go into this (neurological, biological, psychological, social, cultural, spiritual). Luckily, some of these factors are within our control. If we leverage our knowledge of these factors, we can improve our movement toward our resolutions.

How can people stay motivated to achieve them?

I think it is helpful to think about framing these two components of goals: that we perceive them as valuable and attainable.

Valuable: An important component of sustained pursuit of goals (or resolutions) is that we find them valuable – truly meaningful. A resolution to “procrastinate less” might not be valuable enough to sustain the will power required to say “no” to scrolling TikTok and “yes” to that research paper. However, when disrupting the procrastination cycle is connected to higher-level goals (“Doing this work will help me develop the expertise required to serve in a way God has called me to”) the trade-off looks different. Higher order goals are connected to deep-seated values; when faced with the choice of doing something we love (scrolling TikTok), we are more likely to give it up for something we love more (ultimate calling, deep value, character and formation).

Attainable: Attainable goals are those that require work and effort but reasonably so. “Eat healthy” is an admirable resolution, but it’s not really attainable as it’s not clear what it actually means. One of the best ways to reframe this goal is to say something like “Eat two cups of vegetables a day for two weeks.” This is a SMART goal: it’s specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time bound. Formatting resolutions as SMART goals can help make goals attainable, at least in part because it requires that we clarify what we mean and frame it within reach of our starting point. 

It is easy to drop a resolution after missing a day­ — or three. How can people try again?

One of the reasons this happens is because we don’t have a plan for failure. A number of years ago I wanted to read the Bible in a year. The first few weeks were good. Then I missed a day; that was OK, I could double up. Then I missed another few days. Now I’m tripling up. Then I got sick and missed a bunch. I felt so overwhelmed with how behind I was, I gave up entirely. Looking back, I see a number of things I could have done to have pursued this goal more successfully.

One way to try again in goal pursuit is to set gold, silver and bronze goals. Have a high-reach target (gold goal), a mid-reach target (silver goal) and a low-reach target (bronze goal). This way, even if you miss the high-level target, there is still reason to continue the pursuit of the goal. Make sure that all of them require effort, but if you get off track, you can still celebrate the silver or the bronze goal, aiming for the gold again next time.

Another research-baked recommendation is to establish implementation intentions. These are a form of “if/then” statements that essentially pre-decide what you will do should specific situations arise. “If I miss a day of reading, I will wake up 5 minutes early to read the next day” or “If a class gets cancelled, I will use 10 minutes of that time to read ahead in my reading plan.” The value of these implementation intentions is that you don’t have to spend time deliberating what to do in these situations, you’ve already decided. This saves energy and increases efficiency.

A third and very important strategy is to actively work to identify and modify the kind of black-and-white thinking that makes goal pursuit a black/white success or failure.  When we give ourselves the grace and self-compassion to move forward toward goals, allowing for the occasional backward movement, we are taking a long view of success toward habit change. Interesting, this view actually gives us the freedom to sustain movement toward that habit change.

How can people train their minds to be successful in creating new habits?

What I like about this question is the answer is embedded within it: train! Think about how “training” language is used in sports. When we train for an athletic event, we engage with persistence and effort. Sometimes we have major leaps in training, building new capacities and skills quickly and easily, and sometimes we slowly and effortfully claw our way to the next skill. Both are valuable and both should be expected in the creation of new habits to replace old ones. Every day is training whether we are intentional about the telos we are pursuing or not. (So, I suggest we should be intentional.)

What changes are you planning in 2023?

I’m planning to continue a habit I started to develop last year: I am bookending my day with Scripture reading. 

I use habit-stacking. This is when you take a new habit and attach it in a practical way to a well-established pre-existing habit. For example, I brush my teeth twice a day. Last year, I started reading Scripture each time I brushed my teeth. I use these two minutes to recenter and refocus my attention on Christ through Scripture reading. For 2023, I’ve started a new book on Sabbath. I read the Scripture and devotion for this in the morning. In the evening I’m reading through the Old Testament. I don’t always read while brushing my teeth, but I keep these books with my toothbrush, serving as a trigger to do the new habit. 

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