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How's your New Year's resolution coming along? If you've already blown it, don't feel guilty. New Year's resolutions are doomed to fail, according to Richard Koestner. He's a McGill psychology professor who specializes in human motivation and has some cold, hard facts for those of us who, every year, resolve to become thinner, healthier, richer, somehow better.
"Most of us find that we fail at our resolutions year after year," Koestner said. "And the question arises, 'Why are we so terrible at reaching our resolutions and why do we persist making the same resolution even though we failed the last three years?'"
Each year, about one third of Canadians make New Year's resolutions. The two perennial favourites are to quit smoking and to lose weight.
Koestner himself makes resolutions every year. "I have failed at all but three of them. My most common failures have been to really learn French and to stop watching so much TV."
Koestner has a surprising tip: it is not enough to list your goal and post it on the refrigerator. "Nothing magical happens when you state a goal, particularly if it is an ambiguous unmeasurable one like, 'I want to become a better person.' And even with a specific measurable goal, one has to anticipate that it will be very difficult to change one's behaviour."
Instead, set a specific, measurable goal — and state it in positive terms, as something you want to approach rather than avoid.
Koestner's research, conducted at his lab in the Stewart Biological Sciences Building, makes the case that even if you follow all of the standard goal-setting tips, you are still likely to fail thanks to that pesky matter of willpower, or what those in the human-motivation business call, "limited self-regulatory strength."
But there are two things people can do to overcome willpower limitations, his research suggests. First, like a serious actor, question your motivation. "Unfortunately, many of the resolutions we set are actually things we feel others want us to do or things we feel guilty about not having done."
Second, simply setting the goal is not enough. Bolster your goal with specific plans about when, where and how you will take steps to reach it. Ideally, your plan should make the pursuit of the goal almost automatic so that you don't have to keep relying on that elusive limited self-regulatory strength.
That's how Koestner succeeded at one of his resolutions — to drink eight glasses of water a day. At first he failed, several times. "Then in a French class after I gave an exposé on my failed resolutions, a classmate came up to me and gave me a clear bottle of water and she explained that she keeps a water bottle at her workstation and refills it when it gets low. The bottle serves as an automatic cue."
Koestner's final recommendation is something people may want to keep in mind every day of the year: "There is a danger in evaluating life too much in terms of goals met or missed. It's a shame if someone looks back at the year and says, 'Oh boy, I did not lose 10 pounds and get a promotion like I resolved to,' when, meanwhile, they may have made three new friends, helped their family and been a great neighbour. Social relationships are probably the most important factor in determining the quality of one's life but they are not what we tend to make resolutions about."