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Use Science To Achieve Your New Year's Resolutions

Almost half of all Americans set new year’s resolutions every year, yet only 10 per cent of them are successful. Why is it so difficult to achieve personal goals, and how can you optimise your chances for success this year? We dug deeper and found some scientifically-supported techniques you can use to increase your chances for success in 2012.

At the top of this list are resolutions to lose weight, quit smoking, get out of debt, and spend more time with family (among many others). Sadly, few of these resolutions are actually kept.

Psychological studies concerning the decision-making process suggest that there are key patterns that will make the difference between accomplishing your New Year’s resolutions and abandoning them. In this post we’re going to look at how you can exploit these findings to seriously improve your likelihood for success this year. We’ll be using financial goals as an example, but the rules can just as easily apply to any resolution.

Rule #1: Don’t Keep Too Many Resolutions At Once

The study: In an experiment conducted at Stanford, one group of students was given a two-digit number to memorise while the other group was given a seven-digit number. Afterwards, they were asked to walk down a hallway while holding that number in memory and presented with the option to eat a slice of cake or fruit salad at the end.

It turns out that the seven-digit memorisers were nearly twice as likely to choose cake over the fruit salad. It was as though memorising the extra numbers took up ‘good decision making’ space in their brain.

How you can apply the results: Start with the biggest goal you have for 2012.

If you want to get out of debt, make additional investments and have $10,000 more in your savings account in 2012, you might be overwhelmed by all the different tasks and choices that you’ll have to make on a regular basis to realise these resolutions. Instead, pick one or two key goals to focus on and you’ll be much more likely to follow through.

Photo by Spamusement.

Rule #2: Set (Very) Specific Goals.

The study: In review health behaviour change and maintenance studies, it was found that setting specific, difficult goals leads to higher performance when compared with having no goals or vague, non-quantitative goals, such as “do your best”. This holds especially true for goals that are difficult to attain. If you are losing weight for example, set a specific goal around how much weight (five kilograms?) you want to lose by what date (April?).

How you can apply it: New Year’s resolutions tend to be larger than usual goals that are difficult to attain. That’s why we declare these big grand daddy goals at the top of the year to kick things off. Well, the harder the goal, the more imperative it is that you be specific, set a quantifiable goals and write them down. For instance, don’t just aim to get out of debt faster, do something specific and measurable that you can track and work towards. A better goal would be to be more specific, such as “I will stop using my credit cards and pay 10 per cent more than what I’m currently paying towards my debt for 3 months”. These types of goals will require you to plan a bit ahead and figure out ways to make them a reality, but by being specific you know exactly what you’re working towards instead of just having a vague concept of your goal.

Photo by Rob Ellis.

Rule #3: Focus On The Carrot, Not The Stick

The study: A review by faculty members at the University of Chicago Booth School of business concludes that, for people who are new to a particular set of tasks or goals, receiving positive feedback causes them to be more likely to adhere to a new goal.

How you can apply it: Assuming you’re not already an expert at achieving the financial (or any) resolution(s) that you’ve set out for yourself, don’t underestimate the power of being positive and encouraging to yourself about your progress. Set difficult but realistic goals that will give you confidence and focus on the positive aspects of achieving the goal. Financial example: Instead of dreading the extra payments you’ll be making to get out of debt, think about how much your balance is shrinking, and all the things you’ll be able to do once you actually do get out of debt.

Photo by Cyn74.

Rule #4: Tell A Few Friends And Family Members

The study: An experiment conducted on the effects of social support at the workplace concluded that weak social support often leads to elevated levels of heart rate and cortisol, which are indicators of anxiety and stress.

How you can apply it: Many social support groups exist because having the support of others is really helpful when trying to accomplish a difficult goal. Increase your chances of success or, at the very least, help reduce your level of stress and anxiety about achieving your goals by telling a few supportive individuals in your life about it. Ask them to help keep you motivated as you tackle the challenges ahead of you. If you feel comfortable enough, ask them to hold you accountable — in a positive manner — as well. This way you’ll have a cheering section rooting you on all the way to your victory. When you do achieve your goal, they’ll be there to celebrate your success with you, too!

Photo by V.H.D..

Now that we’ve gone over a few scientifically-backed rules for accomplishing your goals, it’s time to go put them to good use. We wish you all the best in being successful with your resolutions this year. If you have any great tips of your own, please share them with us in the comments.

Rod Ebrahimi is a longtime Lifehacker fanatic and co-founder at ReadyForZero.com. Rod is a big believer in setting (and accomplishing) personal resolutions every year. This year, he’s made a commitment to get out of credit card debt faster by paying 10 per cent above the minimum.


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