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The beginning of a new year is conducive to soul searching, looking back at the year that was and making resolutions to improve oneself or one’s life. However, the new year’s magic fades away rather quickly, together with the resolve to make positive changes. Research shows that as many as 50 percent of people who make new year’s resolutions abandon them in the first week of January. What can you do to turn your good intentions into reality? Piotr Modzelewski, psychologist and graduate of SWPS University offers a few tips that will help you to stay on track and achieve the goals, which you had set for yourself on the New Year’s Day.

1. Be Specific

Your goal should be specific. It is important how you formulate it. Instead of making a general statement like “I want to lose weight” be specific and quantify, e.g. “I want to lose five kilograms”. A specific goal will help you to track your progress and see how far you are from achieving the desired result. There is no room for cheating. Additionally, you should precisely formulate activities that will lead you to your goal. For example, “I will lose 5 kilograms by exercising 40 minutes a day, over 60 days.”

2. Choose the Right Time - Apply Implementation Intentions

People often get overzealous and set themselves several goals to achieve at the same time, but life tends to be busy, so they postpone working on their goals. “Should I work out today? No, I don’t have time.”, “I should call my friends, but there is so much to do”. Is there really? Perhaps the lack of time is not the reason and the problem lies in missing opportunities when something can be done. Implementation intentions, i.e. simple formulas that help you “program” your actions, may solve this problem.

Implementation intentions create associations between initial situations and behaviors. They enable you to use opportunities for action, when they occur in the course of the day. In that, they are like unconscious planning, because over time they trigger the required behavior automatically, when the right conditions occur. Here are some examples: “If it’s Monday, Wednesdays or Friday, I will exercise for 20 minutes in the morning” or “When I am at a restaurant, I will order a salad”. Implementation intensions are conditional sentences “if/when - then” and they include specifics of when, where and how you will complete an action. Hence, they turn into quite detailed plans. Research conducted by Peter Gollwitzer, professor of psychology in the Psychology Department at New York University, indicates that implementation intentions increase the probability of completing a task by 200-300 percent.

3. Monitor Your Progress and Check What Remains to Be Done

Every change of behavior or mood needs a benchmark to see where you are in relation to your goal. It allows you to monitor your progress. Research conducted by Timothy Pychyl, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Carlton University in Canada, indicates that progress is a great motivator. Watching the results of your work creates positive emotions and positive emotions motivate you to go further. This is a success perpetuum mobile of sorts. On the other hand, social psychologist Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson notes that concentrating on the progress alone is not enough. You should also review the list of the remaining things to do to achieve your goal. Resting on partial laurels may be demotivating. For example, you have written 52 pages of a 100-page book. Great! But remember you still have 48 pages to write. This approach allows you to keep the right perspective of your achievements to date and maintain your motivation to attain your goal. Apart from tracking your progress, it is a good idea to reward yourself for completing the milestones on the way to your goal and to have a big celebration once you achieve the final desired result.

4. Adopt a Realistic Optimism Approach

The phase of goal setting is characterized by positive thinking and high self-esteem. It is a nice feeling, but it is not sufficient to keep your motivation in the long run. You need to believe that success is possible thanks to hard work, perseverance, planning and applying the right strategies. Unfortunately, numerous self-help books recommend that you focus on positive thinking and strongly believe in your capabilities. It may lead to “magical thinking”, such as: “if I stay positive, the universe will make things happen for me.” However, this method is a good recipe for failure.

Psychologist Gabriele Oettingen observed a group of women who wanted to lose weight or find a partner. Her research results indicated that the mere visualization of the final goal - the wonderful future, though very pleasant was in fact demotivating. Women in this group were less successful in losing weight or meeting men. On the other hand, women who visualized the process of reaching their goal faired better, because this strategy included the sequence of steps required to achieve their goal and took into consideration possible problems and the way to solve them.

5. Concentrate on Becoming Better not on Showing Others how Good You are

Believing in yourself and your competencies that are required to achieve your goal is only half of the success. Believing that you can learn new skills is the other half. According to Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, people with fixed mindset believe that basic traits such as intelligence or personality are constant and cannot be acquired or improved upon. Therefore, they choose only those goals that confirm their predispositions. They treat everything else as a threat. The fixed mindset people are afraid of challenges. Unjustly so, because numerous studies confirm that many skills can be learned. People with a growth mindset understand that. They are not afraid of challenges and they are not afraid to make mistakes. What is interesting, the growth mindset seems to correlate with a lower number of mistakes people make, because fear is the factor that negatively impacts fulling a task. What can you do in this situation? Just accept that mistakes are a natural element of the learning process. Just do it!

Success requires time and effort. There is always a risk of a failure, therefore realistic optimism is advisable. However, you should never give up. Persistence is not a one time effort, but a long-haul endeavor that will lead you to your goal.

6. Be Persistent

Research on motivation and perseverance conducted by American psychologist Angela Duckwort indicates that persistence is a significant factor in goal attainment. People who have their hearts set on achieving a specific goal are prepared to persevere in the face of challenges and difficulties despite the long haul.

Research shows that people who persevere achieve better results in various areas of life, ranging from better grades at school through better education and surviving hard military training. Try to get passionate about the change that you want to make in your life. It is helpful to reward yourself initially for completing new tasks or for reaching a milestone. Positive reinforcement strengthens satisfaction and interest in the task, even if it was not your favorite thing to do initially. As your satisfaction from the task keeps growing, you can gradually decrease the number of rewards for sticking to your plan or reaching a milestone.

Irregular award system is more effective. However, reward yourself judiciously and skip the rewards if the task in question is something that you love to do, because the unnecessary rewards may turn your passion into a chore and it may demotivate you.

7. Work on Your Willpower

Willpower is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. However, your daily challenges and the need to make hundreds of small decisions weakness the strength of your willpower. Therefore, it is better to choose one goal instead of several small ones.

For example: make a New Year’s resolution to lose weight rather than a decision to lose weight AND quit smoking at the same time. How can you strengthen your willpower once it is weakened? The best way to do it is to try a new activity, for example if you usually sit hunched over, try strengthening your back and maintaining this position. Physical activity is also a good way to improve your willpower. Research shows that people who start a fitness routine, eat healthier and better control their spending. It is a domino effect - one good habit inspires other improvements. If you cannot afford to rest, do something to boost your mood. You can listen to your favorite music or watch a comedy. Once your mood improves, your willpower will be renewed.

In a nutshell, to maintain strong willpower, it is necessary to choose a goal, persevere, and have a plan B, in case of obstacles. Do not be afraid to challenge your willpower with tasks of growing difficulty, from time to time. It will help you to exercise better and better self-control.

8. Do Not Leave Everything to Willpower - Manage your Environment

If you don’t want trouble, don't go looking for it. There is a lot of truth in this old saying. Hence, if you are on a diet, remove junk food from your sight or, even better, from your house. If you want to reduce alcohol intake, avoid bars. Some stimuli may hinder the pursuit of your goals, while others can help. A fitness magazine displayed on your coffee table will remind you that you should exercise. Fresh fruit and vegetables on the kitchen counter will help you to reach for an apple instead of a chocolate bar, when you crave a snack. This is how you can shape your environment to stay focused on your goal, but beware of becoming overconfident. People who believe that they can withstand any temptation often look for trouble in places with undesirable stimuli.

9. Concentrate on What you Want

Research on the thought process indicates that if you try to push away some thoughts, they come back with double force (just like in the mental game called “The Game”). The same rule applies to behaviors. In solution-focused (brief) therapy (SFBT), therapists ask their clients: “What do you want instead?”, “What will you do instead?”. These questions can be easily adopted into your everyday life. For example: if you want to control your anger, come up with an alternative behavior that would replace your customary behavior. Plan your behavior for hypothetical situations in advance.

You can also use implementation intentions, for example: “If I notice that I am getting angry, I will breath deeply and change my attitude towards the situation to calm down.” Look for substitute behaviors and if you practice them, they will gradually become a habit and the undesirable behaviors will occur less frequently.

10. Take One Step at a Time

Everyone dreams about achieving great things. Remember that ambitious plans consist of many small steps (e.g. the author of this article completed his Master’s thesis applying the method of small steps: he wrote one page per day and the whole theses, including research, took 4.5 months to complete). It is better to get engaged every day, do a little bit at a time and watch your progress, rather than dream big and never make the first step.

To create a new habit, learn to begin. Most of us do not mind working just a little bit. Set a timer for five, ten or twenty five minutes and in that time, concentrate on the priority project. However, in the set time you should be focusing solely on the task at hand and avoid any distractions. Every time you begin a task, you are learning to initiate an activity. With time it will become automatic.

Try to increase your expectations as you go. If you want to start exercising, begin with five or ten sit ups. After a while, the effects of daily exercise will accumulate and you will be able to add another exercise to your routine. More interesting information on the small steps method can be found in Mini Habits by Stephen Giuse.

You will keep your New Year’s resolutions this year, won’t you?


258 piotr modzelewski

About the author

Piotr Modzelewski – psychologist, educator, expert in psychodietetics, graduate of SWPS University. Works at Pomeranian University in Słupsk and edoktor24.pl, an online medical center. Author of numerous publications and active participant of over 20 scientific conferences. Author of Pokonaj odwlekanie - rozwiń wytrwałość [Overcome Procrastination - Develop Perservirance], a popular science self-help book on procrastination, reviewed by Professor Bolesław Niemierko and Małgorzata Osowiecka, M.A., academics from SWPS University.