Saying ‘No’ to New Year’s Resolutions & ‘Yes’ to Positive Lasting Change

New Year, new you? No chance, no change?

Every New Year our attention is drawn to personal change, which we translate, into intention in the form of resolutions. So why do they fizzle out? What’s the problem? Yes, we  start with good intention and take action, but the problem is that, more often than not, we simply don’t have a well-thought out action plan. We need a well-defined target, not a fuzzy vague ‘over there somewhere’. New Year’s resolutions simply don’t work for a number of very good reasons. So, let’s begin by looking at six common problems with them, and how to put them right:

Negativity
‘Losing’, ‘giving up’, ‘cutting out’ and ‘cutting down’ all have negative connotations. However, we tend to respond better to positively stated goals, such as ‘aiming for a target weight’ or ‘increasing healthy foods‘ or ‘increasing variety in foods‘ and ‘boosting energy levels‘.

Vagueness
Classic New Year’s Resolutions are always rather vague and wishy washy. So, it’s difficult to reach a target that’s not clearly defined.  So once, you’ve got your positively worded direction, it’s best to get specific. What exactly are you going to do to hit your target. What are the behaviours? Target specific actions, such as drinking seven glasses of water and going to the gym three times a week for 45 minutes each time.

Immeasurable
In order to measure your progress you need to make your goals measurable. Ask yourself lots of ‘how’ questions, such as ‘how much’, ‘how many’, and how often’. Just doing something ‘more often’ is vague and immeasurable. Also build up to your target so you don’t feel overwhelmed. Build steady progress into your routine, and where possible break larger goals down into smaller milestones.

Unachievable
Each year we psych ourselves up for the new year. It feels so now or never.   Of course we need goals that are going to stretch us or else we’d soon get bored. However, it’s pointless setting impossible goals. Our goals need to be achievable. Are your goals within your capabilities?

Unrealistic
It’s common to tackle too many things at once or over-plan every minute of your day. Be realistic and pick one thing at a time to work on. That way you build your confidence.

Open-ended (never-ending)
If you goal is your ‘preferred end state’ then you need a ‘preferred end date’. Putting a time scale on it helps with motivation. It provided a sense of ‘urgency’ about the goal.

The SMARTER approach to New Year’s Resolutions is to set SMARTER goals:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound
  • Enthusiastically (positively) worded
  • Regularly-reviewed

Goal-setting is not a one shot deal. It’s a process. If you find your progress is slower than expected or you find yourself not hitting those milestones when expected, then GO BACK AND REVIEW! It’s only failure if you fail to use the feedback. Have a look to see if your goals really are realistic and achievable for your person circumstances. If you need to, make changes are try again. Don’t wait until next New Year’s day. . . get right back to it straight away.

Saying ‘No’ to New Year’s resolutions and using SMARTER as well as other goal-setting tools and techniques (such as PAR and GO-FLOW) means that instead of vague statements of wishful thinking, you will have concrete, action plans to channel your resources. So make your final resolution to ditch resolutions and start setting goals. . . not just once a year when you’re caught up in the New Year fever. . .but any time you want to take charge and make changes. . . positive lasting change!

[Adapted from Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It!‘]

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Oh No They Can’t! Oh Yes They Can! Self-Help Mantras With Evidence-Based Psychology Can Help!

Self-help affirmations are a common techniques designed to improve a person’s sense of worth but many self-help books offer the technique in uniformed and uncritical way. Unfortunately our inner critic is not so forgiving. So, if you endless repeat ‘I am a gifted, lovable, dynamic, outgoing person’ over and over again your inner critic may just respond each time ‘No you’re not! NO you are not!! NO YOU ARE NOT! NO YOU ARE @&%*ING WELL NOT!’ So, it’s no surprise that new research has found that low-self esteem felt worse after repeating positive statements about themselves. However, ‘let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater’. As welcome as this research is, affirmations can still be helpful if you use them in line with evidence-based psychological insights. Let’s look at why and how.

As I explain in Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It, the problem is that many self-help gurus do not have even a fundamental understanding of attitude change, although many have recognised that the over-blown affirmations do not work. If you’ve ever had a conversation with a negative person and tried to offer suggestions you will know why. Invariably your attempts will be met with ‘yes but, yes but, yes but’. As we know ‘yes but means no!’. It’s like aiming ‘well intentioned missiles’ at the Starship Enterprise when the deflector shields are up. You ain’t gonna get through!

The secret is to recognise that attitude change is often a slow and subtler process. If we combine the psychology of attitudes with some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) and insights from Positive Psychology then we do have a recipe for change. All of these already drawn on a body of research whereas the ‘repeat things you don’t believe’ approach, does not!

The secret is to use small incremental steps that are difficult to disagree with. Focus on continual improvement. So for instance, compare these two statements:

  1. I am a lovable person
  2. I am becoming a more lovable person

Statement 2 is still not perfect but it is not so easily discounted as statement 1. Furthermore, statement 1 is most likely cancelled out by the existing statement running over and over in a person’s head, which says ‘I am an unlovable person’. This has already set up a perceptual filter that looks for evidence to support this statement and filter out anything to the contrary. This how negative attitudes and stereotypes are maintained. Statement 2 can easily be tagged on as a ‘but’:

  • I am an unlovable person BUT I am becoming a more lovable person

So if you are running negative statements, what you need to do first is spot them and use a method to cancel them. Just saying ‘Cancel’ makes the process more conscious. You can then substitute a ‘becoming’ statement.

Another technique is to add an ‘up until now clause’ which opens up the possibility of change. For instance:

  • I’m crap at maths

This becomes:

  • Up until now I’ve been crap at maths

Now add the ‘but’:

  • Up until now I’ve been crap at maths but I’m improving

After you’ve used this for a while, your inner critic is  much more likely to be receptive to the affirmation:

  • As I work at it, my maths is improving

Whereas, ‘I’m fantastic at maths’ is likely to be met with the immediate response: ‘No you’re not, you’re as thick as pig sh*t’!’ Clearly, your inner critic recognises the lie and tells you so and you end up feeling worse. To make progress you need to write affirmations that are unlikely to be rejected.

It’s only really possible to scratch the surface in this post, but hopefully I’ve demonstrated that it’s not self-help affirmations that are at fault, it’s how they are written. Knowledge of evidence-based psychology of attitude change (and therapeutic techniques) can help us to structure statements, that slowly peel back the defences.

One of the main motivations for writing ‘Don’t Wait. . . Swim Out‘ was to dispel self-help myths and put some evidence-based insights back into equation. Here’s a short video that explains more about my approach to affirmations and turning that inner critic into an inner coach:

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Goal-Setting with PAR & SWOT

In golf, every hole is classified by its par. It is the theoretic number of strokes that expert golfers should require for getting the ball into the hole. So based on this, I give you PAR for goal-setting.

P A R stands for:

  • Plan
  • Action
  • Result (or Review)

Using PAR for the basis of all goal-setting, if the action doesn’t immediately lead to a result, this offers the opportunity to reflect and go back to the planning stage. It’s also helps to use PAR in conjunction with my other goal-setting model GO-FLOW (see below) as well as a SWOT analysis:

  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Opportunities
  • Threats

Using SWOT can help us to play to our strengths, manage our weaknesses, maximise opportunities and neutralise threats (obstacles).

Taken together, PAR, SWOT and GO-FLOW remind us that what we often term ‘failure’ is actually ‘feedback’. Goal-setting isn’t about getting ‘a hole in one’. It’s about learning how to use feedback to refine our plan so that our action becomes increasingly locked on to our targets. Goal-setting is a process of continual, focused enlightenment not a one-off  ‘shot in the dark’.

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