One of the biggest points of failure in New Year's resolutions is a lack of scaffolding. If you want to ensure lasting and positive change you have to structure the change in a manageable and reasonable way.
Photo by Foxtongue.
People consistently set themselves up for failure by focusing too strongly on the end-game and too little on the planning and progress stages of personal change. Scaffolding is a technique well known among educators and coaches but largely ignored elsewhere — especially when it comes to personal growth. When a teacher structures lessons so that they move the student from being dependent on the teacher for help to being an independent learner they are scaffolding the student's growth — ensuring they continue to succeed and have greater sense of accomplishment without just throwing them in front of a difficult task and saying, "Figure it out."
The "Figure it out" approach is the approach most people use with themselves, however. Across the world millions of people made vague and difficult to achieve New Year's resolutions last week. People resolved to lose weight, quit smoking, be a better parent, have a better work/life balance, get out of debt, get organised and so on. The vast majority of those people will approach the resolution with the best intention and within a matter of months — if not weeks! — they will have abandoned their resolution or outright forgotten about it. This happens because the distance between one's present state, whatever that state may be, and the future state that people dream of when they make a New Year's resolution is a nearly impossible distance to cross without a map — a map you can build by reading the following guide and answering the questions in it.
Choose a Concrete Goal
Before all else, you need to have a firm goal in mind. A map isn't very helpful if your only idea of where you want to go is somewhere in Asia. The more specific the destination — your goal! — the more specific the steps you can take to get to it. Avoid vagueness, what exactly does "be a better parent" mean, after all? If that was your choice for your New Year's resolution then obviously something prompted you to think of it.
What does being a better parent mean? Spending more time with your children when you get home from work? Making a bigger effort to listen to the things they say? Don't settle for an abstract goal. "Be a better person" is the kind of New Year's resolution shifty politician would make. Dig at your resolution until you find the meat inside. Photo by PhillipC.
What's the Next Action?
You know what weight loss doesn't look like? Sitting on the couch complaining about how hard it is to lose weight. Weight loss looks like someone planning their meals, learning about nutrition and actively looking for ways to incorporate exercise into their daily routine. Nobody wakes up one day and says "Oh my. I'm a neurosurgeon. However did that happen?" They've got the how-it-happened part right into their brains from years of gruelling study and residency and chances are none of that happened by accident. If you want to lose weight, get promoted, learn how to salsa dance or become a yoga instructor, you're going to need to lay out the steps and to do so as clearly as possible.
- What do you have to do right now to start achieving your resolution?
- If you don't know, where can you go to find out?
- What will you have to do next month? The month after that?
- Does your resolution have an end?
- What skills or behaviours will you be adopting from this point on?
If you can't answer the first question "What do I have to do right now to start achieving my goal?" then you'll never achieve it. For every one-in-a-million person that stumbles into fame, fortune or success, thousands of people get there by asking "How do I achieve this?" and getting to work. Photo by D Sharon Pruitt.
Make Your Resolution Open Ended
Open ended isn't a euphemism for vague. Open ended resolutions are those which encourage you to continue a positive behaviour. "I want to lose 10 kilos" is a concrete resolution but it's not very open-ended. Either you lose the 10 kilos and succeed or you don't and you fail. Resolving to exercise every morning or to learn to cook so you'll eat less pre-packaged meals are both resolutions that will likely lead you to lose 10 kilos but they are resolutions that focus on adding positive habits and skills to your life instead of focusing on getting rid of something you don't like.
It might seem like psychological slight-of-hand but you're way more likely to keep a resolution that focuses on a positive aspect of your life and gaining new skills than you are to keep one that focuses on how much you hate your beer gut and want it banished. Open-ended resolutions do not excuse you from adhering to the "Next Action" rule. Photo by extranoise.
Seek out a Support Network
It might not sound like much fun, but take a hard look at your friends. Things like spending patterns, eating habits and so on, are usually fairly uniform across a social group. People get fatter together, go into debt together, drink too much together, and by the same measure people exercise together, count their pennies together and do just as much to foster positive behaviours. If your friends like to stay out late drinking and scarfing down fast food during midnight benders, you're not going to have much luck losing weight by keeping up with them and their antics.
Nobody is telling you to ditch your friends, mind you, but you need to be aware of what a support network looks like and what it doesn't. If you want to lose weight, surround yourself with health-oriented people. If you want to be more frugal with your money, stop going out on the town with your $US10-a-drink-or-bust socialite friends. At the minimum be very conscious of how being around the people that encourage/embrace the negative habit you're trying to stamp out makes you feel and impacts you. Seek out people that support positive change. Photo by Mike Baird.
Be Realistic and Be Kind
If you've taken the "Next Action" and "Open Ended" rules to heart, you've likely already set a realistic goal. If not, take this to heart: unrealistic goals are worse than no goals at all. If you're 20 kilos overweight and you haven't done any sort of formal exercise since high school it's a bit unrealistic to think you'll be competing in a triathlon by April. Although if you have your heart set on it, you know what to do — plan out all the next actions it'll take to drag you across the finish line three months from now.
You're not weak for setting a realistic goal instead of firing off a lofty and unattainable. Setting reasonable goals that you can achieve will reinforce your desire to continue to improve yourself.
If you were a teacher, you would never expect your students to be able to ace the final on the first day. If you were a coach you'd never expect your players to be ready for the championship game after the first week of practice. If a friend came to you and asked you to help them with the very same resolution you're struggling with, you'd help them plan out a course of action and support them in undertaking. Yet most people don't treat themselves with that degree of care by any measure.
You wouldn't put a bat in first grader's hands and say "Alright. Go hit a home run." and you shouldn't stare at yourself in the mirror and say "Get it together" as your only support for achieving your resolutions. Support and scaffold your own change like you would that of someone you cared about.
Have a bit of advice, tip or trick for helping your fellow readers have New Year's Resolution success in 2010? Let's hear about it in the comments.