Walking into the New Year feeling like a better you is pretty simple. First, you make a list of all the stuff you wish you did the year before. For some of us, that list is pretty short. For others, the list is so long it looks more like a rap sheet than some New Year’s goals. After you make your list, you announce it to all your friends on social media. If you don’t know what to say, we’ve made a convenient template for you to follow. Just copy, paste, and fill in the relevant blanks:
“Alright guy! New year, new [Your Name]! I’m ready to kick some ass and take some names in [Year], and I know this year is the year that I finally [Most Important Resolution]! Catch you suckers on the flip-side!”
Then, if you’re 80% of people, you totally disregard all the stuff on your list.
We decided unanimously that last part sucks. So, this year, we’re going to help everybody do things the right way. By using science.
Designate “Micro Quotas” for “Macro Goals”
When it comes to setting goals for oneself, dreaming big isn’t necessarily a problem. According to the Self-Determination Theory, human beings can rely on being internally motivated to do things (as opposed to an external system of rewards and punishments) when they want to set goals for themselves. That’s the easy part. But when it comes to accomplishing those big goals—whether they be about personal fitness, productivity, professional progress, or whatever else you’re aiming to improve in the New Year—it’s usually a lot more complicated.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand it, but basically, taking your big idea and sectioning it off into smaller, measurable pieces and accomplishing each smaller goal bit by bit is one of the most surefire and time-tested ways to really make it all work.
Pick a Direction—Any Direction—And Move
When it comes to productivity, one of the easiest, and most common, ways to completely kill your productivity is a psychological anomaly called “Analysis Paralysis.”
The term essentially means that we benefit more from picking a direction and hitting the ground running, as opposed sitting an analyzing out options. In fact, according to Psychologist Barry Schwartz, when we have too many options, our decision making abilities become drastically hindered. The term he coined for this occurrence is “Paradox of Choice.”
The easiest way to combat the paradox is to get to work, then allow yourself to readjust, pivot, or even completely overhaul your process if necessary. Doing so is generally much more efficient than wasting time not doing anything.
Learn How to Forgive, Quickly
It may not make a lot of sense on the surface, but putting yourself through hell over procrastinating or failing to accomplish a goal isn’t going to help you perform better. In fact, according to several studies, it can actually be a hindrance.
Dr. Michael J.A. Wohl and colleagues from Carleton University in Ontario conducted a study of 119 first-year students while they studied for two exams. Each student completed a measurement of their level of procrastination, and the amount of self-forgiveness for said procrastinating. Wohl and his team discovered that students who were more likely to self-forgive for their procrastination on the first exam were more likely to procrastinate less while prepping for the second.
The idea is you’re eventually going to screw up, and the quicker you are to recognize your mistakes, forgive yourself, and move one, the higher your odds of progress and success are.
Plan Efficiently, But Don’t Fantasize About Success
This one is a little peculiar, because, typically, we’re told to visualize our success or manifest our own destiny. However, there’s plenty of research out there that demonstrates fantasizing about individual success is an excellent way to totally fail.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s not okay to plan.
The difference is basically this: Fantasizing about being a professional racecar driver is bad. Visualizing the process involved in building a car, training rigorously, and competing, however, is great. According to another study from a team at UCLA, visualizing helps focus people’s attentions on the things they need to do to attain their individual goals, as well as reducing anxiety over time about the potential success or failure of their ambitions.
Avoid The “What the Hell Effect” at All Costs
Did you know that you have a psychological willpower instinct? More commonly called the “What-the-Hell Effect,” it’s what happens when you say “screw it” about your goal, which makes you more likely to say “screw it” in the future.
For example, you’re four weeks in on a new diet and gym regimen, you’re seeing a little progress, but not nearly much as you think you deserve, and then you go out to lunch with colleagues, rather than order the salad like you know you should, you go straight for the personal pizza. That delicious, thin-crusted bastard. That’s your “screw it.” Then, for dinner, since you broke your diet at lunch, you chow down on a bucket of chicken wings.
Combating this effect falls into the self-forgiveness we were talking about earlier. Instead of getting all guilty and raking yourself over the coals for messing up your diet, remind yourself that it’s okay to mess up sometimes. Everyone does it and no one should abuse themselves for a little misplaced indulgence. If you extend yourself a little compassion, you’re far more likely to get yourself back on track.
Understand “The Habit Loop” and Use it to Your Advantage
Chris Duhigg is a former New York Times reporter and author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (itself, a New York Times Bestseller). In it, he describes how human beings are creatures of habit, and discusses how we can take advantage of our behaviors to live better, more productive lives.
One of the things he describes is called the habit loop, the process by which we form new habits. There are three components to it:
The Trigger: The event that starts the habit. (Resolving to get fit in the New Year.)
The Routine: The behavior that you perform—the physical activity. (Going to the gym).
The Reward: The benefit that is associated with the behavior. (Chiseled abs, baby!)
There are five types of habit triggers—time, location, preceding event, emotional state, other influences—and of them, time and location are the easiest to use. Setting a specific time every day to do something—whether it’s read a book, learn a new skill, or exercise—is one of the simplest ways to start creating a new habit. Focus on one of those five triggers and then make sure you’re following through on the rest.
Keep Things Quantifiable—Be SMART
We like numbers. They help keep us develop game plans, create goals, keep things in check, and measure our success. Yet, when it comes to New Year’s resolutions, some of the most popular ones (Eat healthier, be a better person, stop bad mouthing your mother-in-law, etc.) are incredibly vague.
There are a multitude of studies—the most popular being this one from Harvard—that suggest keeping your goals measurable makes total sense. The popular acronym is SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Bound.
So, rather than resolve to be a better person generally, resolve to give a specific amount of money to charity or volunteer the same hours every week, etc. Rather than “exercise more,” go to the gym four or five days or measure the miles you every week. If your success is measurable, you’ll see it in concrete terms, so you’ll know how well you’re doing.
Seek Out Support and Find a Group
Your New Year’s resolutions might be personal, but they probably have less to do with your ego than you think. In a 2011 meta-analysis that examined 38 studies on the effects of group goals in performance, researchers found that there were three characteristics in play that help boost people’s propensity toward goal attainment. Two of them, we’ve already covered (Be specific, dream big), but the third is interesting: Be group centric.
By nature, human beings prefer working as a team. While it’s undeniable that many of our life’s goals are egocentric, when we’re in groups working toward a collective goal, we tend to perform our best. If it’s fitness you’re looking to attain, take group classes or join an adult kickball league. If you’re looking to finally quit smoking, see about any of the dozens of support groups or online forums out there. Find a group wherever you can and make it a group effort.