A: A new year. A tabula rasa. The blank slate which populates our mind’s eye each impending year offers a chance for a rebirth. We can eradicate nasty habits and accrue helpful ones. All it takes are some cognitive tactics. So, the answer to whether resolutions work is simple, but the explanation is more complex. Overall, yes, New Year’s resolutions work if you want them to work. But in order to graduate from goals you scribble in your Moleskine journal that never materialize to fully formed new habits, there are certain steps you must take.
Psychologists at Duke University define habits as a learned proclivity to repeat previous behaviors. Researchers who study habit formation have found that nearly half of habits experienced are repeated in the same physical contexts each day. However, these behaviors become automatic when there is an association between the context and response, as well as underlying goals. This means that goals will become automatic responses once you deem them successful and follow through in the same physical location or context for a finite period of time.
When creating goals for us in the New Year, what’s important to keep in mind is specificity and ease of obtainment. Create a list of specific goals so that there is no room for gray. If you say you want to become a fit person in the New Year, this leaves ample room for assessment on what deems a person physically fit. You should, instead, create goals that have concrete definitions attached such as “I want to run 3 miles a day.” Cognitive psychologists also state that “framing effects” greatly impact the way we form decisions and formulate goals. Framing effects are when we use a benchmark or reference point as a way to appraise our current situation. So depending on your current situation, you perceive outcomes as either gains or losses.
Framing effects can actually help when creating goals for the New Year. If you’re evaluating the New Year as a blank slate, then any goal achieved should be evaluated as a gain in this context. Framing effects can also change with time so that when we change the description of a situation, this will lead to adopting different points of reference. Thus, once we’ve achieved our goals up to a particular point—say, you’ve run your 3 miles a day for 3 months in the same physical location—you might hit a ceiling. You might think you have nothing left to achieve because your reference point was now 0.
However, now you have the opportunity to change your reference point to 3 miles and should evaluate future physical goals from that starting point. One simple cognitive description could lead to a whole new set of goals. Another method for delineating goals in the New Year is to hold yourself accountable. With technology these days there’s no excuse for not clearly defining your specific goals and recording your progress. Return to your recordings to see how far you’ve come and use this to influence your framing effect.
Another example is if you want to eat healthier in the new year, make one small change. In psychology, chaining is when small acts eventually accumulate into long-term benefits. For instance, we all know that refined flour is bad for us, yet we’re New Yorkers and we can’t bear to give up our bagel and coffee. Switch out the everything bagel for a whole wheat bagel. Making changes that seem miniscule will ripple or chain into long-term changes so that eventually, refined flour is completely eradicated from your diet. What’s important to remember is the power your cognitions play in decision making. Repeat simple mantras to yourself and know that only you have the ability to chain positive behaviors and re-define your framing effect so that the New Year brings you health and happiness.
Kristine Keller received her Master’s in psychology from New York University.
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