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New Year’s Resolutions and the Power of the Written Word

New Year’s Resolutions and the Power of the Written Word

With the new year approaching, it’s time to think about the changes we hope to make in 2019. This tradition can be traced back to the ancient Babylonians and Romans, who made pledges to their gods at the beginning of each new year. The month of January, which ushers in the new year for those following the Gregorian calendar, was named after the Roman god Janus, a two-faced deity with eyes facing forward and backward. The patron of change and beginnings, Janus looks toward both past mistakes and future aspirations. The early “resolutions” of people in these ancient cultures included promises to pay back debts and to exhibit good behavior. About 4 millennia since the custom first appeared, it turns out we haven’t changed much. Many of us have goals to pay down our credit cards, drink less, eat better and generally be more positive and nicer to others.

According to U.S. News, about 80% of New Year’s goals fail about a month and a half into the year. New Year’s resolutions help to start the year off with a burst of enthusiasm as we attempt to introduce healthier habits into our lives, but our motivation usually tapers off after the first few weeks, and by February, we’re right back to our December selves.

UrbanDictionary.com has a term that recognizes this early optimism that so often peters out. A “January Joiner” is someone who signs up for a gym membership at the start of the new year, only to drop out after a few weeks and regress to their old behaviors. Resolutions are difficult to follow, but there are some tips that will increase your chances of achieving your 2019 goals:

Write it

Jotting down a goal increases the likelihood of accomplishment by 1.2 to 1.4 times, and there is a reason for this. While the process of thinking up a goal is helpful, writing it down allows for a process of encoding to take place in the brain, where the thought is laid down in memory. It’s a complex neuroscientific process, but suffice it to say that it plays an important role in accomplishing goals. In addition, a tangible written goal will serve as a physical reminder each time you see it, boosting its staying power. Put it on your refrigerator, bathroom mirror, or digital calendar to keep it foremost on your mind.

Refine it

“I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp in-focus picture of it in my head.” —World Champion Golfer Jack Nicklaus

What so often dooms our New Year’s resolutions is that they lack sufficient clarity. It’s not enough to say that I want to drop 15 pounds. Within this goal are several unstated goals like “exercise three times per week,” “Exercise for 45 minutes each time,” or even more specific, “Walk around the park for 45 minutes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.” If this is a sharp, in-focus picture, “Lose 15 lbs.” is a pixelated blur.

 The SMART method of goal setting offers a helpful template for writing clear and effective resolutions. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound.

  • Specific – Be clear on the who, what, when, and where. It might even help to throw a why in there. How much more would you like to exercise, how much less do you want to spend, and what kind of hobby do you want to learn and how often will you practice?

  • Measurable – Is this a goal you can measure? If not, how will you know that you are making progress?

  • Achievable – Is this goal within your power to attain? Perhaps you want to pass a licensing exam. It’s a noble pursuit, but the locus of control is partially external since you are not the one designing the test or giving yourself the grade. A better goal would be to study every day for two hours. With a specific goal in mind that is within your control, the hoped-for outcome is more likely to fall into place.

  • Realistic – Your goals should be a combination of challenging and attainable. If it’s weight loss, make sure that you’re not taxing yourself too much in too short a period of time. If it’s saving money, make sure your savings goal is not so ambitious that you can’t afford groceries for the week.

  • Time-bound – This goes back to the specificity piece. Give yourself a realistic—but finite—amount of time to reach your goal. 

Share it

Make your goals known to a friend or loved one. Research shows that goals have a better chance of being reached if you give a friend weekly progress updates. An accountability partner can help keep your eyes on the prize as well as help you brainstorm ways around challenges that threaten to curtail your progress. Why not do the same thing for them?

Revisit it

A University of California study looked at the impact of visualization on three groups of students: one who visualized being A-students, one who visualized study habits, and one who didn’t visualize anything. The group that visualized specific study habits fared better in several categories, they studied more, prepared better, earned better grades, and were less stressed. Brain patterns that are engaged while performing an activity are similarly engaged while visualizing doing that activity.

If it helps to visualize your goals along with writing them down, go for it.

While vision boards are a popular means of forming goals, they can be counterproductive if they are simply a picture or image of what you want. More helpful is a clear, broken-down plan for achieving it. If it’s a new car, you can visualize or stare at pictures of the car until you’re blue in the face, but doing so will not automatically help you earn and save the money needed to buy it.  

To review, write the goal down. Writing helps the process of encoding take place in the brain and gives physical form to the goal. Be specific using the SMART method. As clearly as you can, figure out the who, what, when and where. For accountability, share your goal with a partner and give them regular progress updates. And finally, revisit the goal through visualization or by reviewing what you have written down. Hopefully this time, in February, you’ll be well on your way to achieving your goals.

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