We are part of the way through January, and it's likely you've been poking some new resolutions with an old stick. How's it going? It's possible that right about now the resolution that seemed so doable a few weeks ago -- work out every day, give up chocolate, read more -- is starting to feel more and more challenging to maintain. Before you declare yourself a failure and give up on those new intentions you've set, let's try to breathe some new life into them. The following three scientifically based tips will help nudge you back on course and approach resolutions in a way that will actually make them stick!
1) Add a Question Mark
Instead of thinking of your resolution as a declaration of what you will do, try phrasing it as a question. Rather than saying "I will get in better shape" ask "How will I get in better shape?" Instead of saying "I'll meditate daily" ask "How will I structure my day so I am sure to find time to meditate?" Research shows that when it comes to motivation, questions seem to work better than statements. Posing goals as questions stimulates the mind to find intrinsically motivated reasons to pursue them and intrinsic motivation is shown to increase goal completion. In other words, posing the question helps us connect to the underlying motivation for achieving the goal, keeping us on track. Additionally, when we pose resolutions as questions we are forced to think about how to practically institute them. Using the example above, if we ask, "How will I structure my day so I find time to meditate?" we start to think about the how instead of the what. The how might be "create a meditation space in my home," "set an alarm or reminder," "ask a friend to join me in this resolution so I have someone to be accountable to." This thought process makes it much more likely that you will stick to the resolution because you have actually thought about what needs to happen to realistically sustain it.
2) Focus on One Resolution at a Time
People tend to wait until Jan. 1 to make changes in their lives and then create a long laundry list of things they want to shift. The problem is that willpower appears to be a limited resource. Research by Matthew Gailliot and Roy Baumeister at the University of Florida has found that self-control is like a muscle that tires with use. Each time we need to engage in an act requiring self-control we utilize blood glucose, which decreases the overall supply available to us. As a result, subsequent attempts at willpower can be impaired. So how do we make due with these limited resources? Focus on one goal at a time. Once you feel that you have been able to make this goal self-sustaining, move on to the next.
3) Kick Self-Criticism to the Curb and Focus on Self-Compassion
People often mistakenly believe that criticism actually improves motivation and helps up stick to our resolutions, but the opposite is actually true. While it may seem counter-intuitive, being kind to ourselves when we slip up on our goals is actually the key to getting back on track and achieving success. Research by Powers et al found that self-criticism decreases goal completion because it increases procrastination and rumination. Conversely, research by Breines and Chen found that people who were compassionate towards themselves after making a mistake or identifying a personal weakness had increased motivation with regards to self-improvement. So next time you skip the gym or have that piece of chocolate, instead of berating yourself, offer yourself some kind word such as, "it's okay, we all mess up sometimes. These new resolutions are tough, but I know they are important to my well-being." If you are really having a hard time accessing this voice, imagine what compassionate words you would offer to a friend who just lapsed on a goal and turn those words back to yourself. If the research cited above is not motivation enough to be kinder to yourself, consider that self-compassion is also associated with higher levels of happiness and optimism as well as decreased levels of depression and anxiety. So not only will it help you with your resolutions, it will improve your overall well-being.