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How to let go of your New Year’s resolutions — and everything you think they say about you

January 26, 2017
By Krysten Crawford
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Stanford education scholars outline strategies for achieving your goals in 2017. (Photo: turgaygundogdu/Shutterstock)
Stanford education scholars share research-based ideas for staying motivated, building perseverance and sparking creativity in 2017.

Struggling with your Jan. 1 pledge to hit the gym, save more money or stay off your smartphone? You’re not alone. 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.

Don’t beat yourself up. Your well-intentioned vow to wake up a new and improved version of your Dec. 31 self, and to stay that way, was doomed from the start, according to researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education who have studied human development and behavior through learning.

That’s because 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-bootstrap’ burden on ourselves with New Year’s resolutions,” says Jelena Obradovic, a GSE 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. “There are all these other barriers around us,” says Obradovic. “To really change, and to have it persist, sometimes those barriers have to change as well.”

Daniel Schwartz, the 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.”

Fortunately, there are lots of tricks to help people bent on self-improvement to stay on track, build perseverance and spark creativity in 2017.

Motivation: Small things matter

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, a Stanford 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. Cohen has co-authored research, including a 2011 study on weight-loss and a 2009 study on teens’ academic success, that finds that people who write about their core values – ones that give them a sense of meaning that goes beyond the stressors they face – gain a better sense of well-being and self-control, and are more successful at achieving their goals.

“Little things can go a long way--if they happen at the right moment,” Cohen says. “This includes tying goals to important values, taking a psychological ‘time out’ to reflect on what really matters to you in the grand scheme of things.” He suggests not leaving goals abstract but setting specific strategies to achieve them.

Be careful about using rewards as a motivating tool. Sweeteners can backfire, according to Schwartz. “Rewards are very powerful, but they are also potentially dangerous,” he says. 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. “It shuts you down,” says Schwartz, “so that all you’re focused on is the reward.”

Done right, rewards target behaviors — not outcomes. Schwartz recalls a point in his career when he realized he wasn’t publishing enough to get ahead in academia. So he set up a reward scheme where he had to write every Friday night for two hours. He didn’t put any pressure on himself to produce anything, but he had to at least think about writing or work on an outline. After two hours, he treated himself to a glass of Scotch and a steak. “Zoom forward 25 years and I’ve written a heck of a lot of papers,” says Schwartz. “If you spend enough time at something, you get good at it.”

Also effective: simple strategies like putting Post-It notes on the fridge or tracking your progress on a calendar. “Use your environment to support you,” says Schwartz.

Perseverance: Focus on soft skills

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.

“We all have a set of skills that help us plan and control our behaviors, focus our attention and stop impulsivity,” she says. These soft skills, she adds, also allow for the flexible thinking that’s required of people when they pursue goals that require them to think or act in new ways.

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. Taking up a musical instrument or learning a new language also works to improve brain elasticity and the ability to adapt, she adds.

Creativity: Get outside

Who doesn’t want more creativity in life? That bad news is that unleashing your imagination is a lot easier said than done. “Creativity is a hard choice to make,” says Schwartz. “It means you’re trying something daring and there’s a good chance it’s wrong and ineffective.”

The good news is that creativity isn’t genetic; everyone has the ability to think differently. Schwartz’s research has shown that walking around the block can spur creativity. It not only enhances mood, but also requires the right amount of distraction so that the filters in your brain that might block fresh ideas are tied up in the act of walking.

Here’s another trick: when you want to think creatively about a specific problem or project, come up with three or four concepts. “Don’t just stick with your first idea and then refine it,” says Schwartz. “Come up with three or four ideas. You’ll find that the fourth idea is much better than the first one you kept refining.”

Think about that when Dec. 31 rolls around.