Making a change: the psychology behind New Year’s resolutions

Sam Gilbert is a journalism sophomore and Mustang Daily health columnist.

Remember at the start of 2012 when you swore you’d stick to your resolution to lose five pounds or to take up a new hobby? Yeah, we remember too.

A year later and here we are again. Don’t worry, though; you’re not alone. It’s common to lose that motivation to make a change that always feels so powerful at the beginning of the year. However, 2013 will be different, because there are actually ways to stay committed that make it a lot easier than you think.

Behavior change is key, according to kinesiology lecturer Don Clegg. It has to be really important to the person and he or she has to have the motivation to do it, he said.

“My thought is, if you want to lose weight or change a behavior, don’t make the first step the action phase,” Clegg said.

If you don’t take some time to make plans to prepare for it, then you’re really setting yourself up to fail, Clegg said.

Psychologists point out that change is a process that begins with thinking about change, planning for change and then actually changing, psychology professor Shawn Burn said.

“Goal setting is a motivational technique supported by years of research,” Burn said.

It’s a good thing in that regard, especially if the commitment is in some way public, such as if you share that commitment with other people and that makes you more likely to follow through with it, Burn said.

Commitment is good, goal setting is good, but the problem with New Year’s resolutions is that people make broad, vague goals when they need to make very specific goals in measurable terms, Burn said.

Vague, general goals are not as effective as specific, yet challenging goals, Burn said. Recording and tracking progress toward goals and rewarding yourself for success are useful.

Don’t look at it as pass or fail, Clegg said. If you make a specific goal, such as wanting to lose a certain amount of weight and you achieve about 80 percent of that, that’s still pretty good. Don’t look at it as a failure.

Jacob Sanchez, business administration freshman, said resolutions aren’t usually successful.

Most people don’t follow through with them, Sanchez said. They get lazy and busy with school and things like that.

Not having a specific action plan and too vague of a goal can cause lack of motivation, Burn said. Another aspect is the nature of habit.

Adopting new habits is tricky because it requires conscious thinking, Burn said. We generally don’t operate that way and take the time to think really purposefully about everything we do.

You may find it useful to post sticky note prompts to help you remember, or phone alarms reminding you to perform the new, desired behavior, Burn said.

Accept that old habits are hard to break and new ones take time to develop, so you are not too quick to give up if you slip, Burn said.

Sooner or later, people relapse, Clegg said. Before a person is able to successfully achieve changes in his or her health behavior, many times it takes about three to five rounds of trial and error to get it.

You need to find out what those triggers are that make you lose motivation, and try to make those changes, Clegg said.

For example, if you like to eat junk food when you study, take all the junk food out of sight and replace it with fruits or veggies.

Psychologists say another barrier to change is ambivalence, Burn said. In other words, there are some good things associated with the behavior you need to change and some bad things about the new behavior you’re trying to adopt.

Sometimes writing down an affirmation about why you want to make the change will help reduce ambivalence associated with making the change, Burn said.

Bring people who are important to you into the process for support, Clegg said.

Cal Poly offers many supportive resources as well.

The health center, counselors, food and nutrition services, psychologists and PolyFit in the kinesiology department are all options, Clegg said. There are many helpful options that some people haven’t considered.

Do it because of how it makes you feel — not because of what you think it’ll do for you, Clegg said.

  • Marilyn Sultar

    Really excellent article!!! Thx for writing it!

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