We all do it. And we all ask it. What’s your New Year’s resolution? Are you going to shed a ridiculous amount of pounds? Take your medication everyday? Call your parents or grandparents every week? Wake up earlier to work-out before work? Whatever it may be, humans are inherently bad at predicting our “future selves”, the selves we aren’t in the present, but we who we picture ourselves to be in the future. We want to want to work out, just not today. Tomorrow. Do you know the Latin for “to put off ’till tomorrow”? By no coincidence, it’s “procrastination”.
Maybe come January first, we have the motivation to start the new year off right. We keep that motivation going for a few days, a week, a few weeks, maybe even a month. Deviation from this push of energy has a term: behavioral scientists refer to it as the “honeymoon” effect. The idea that we’re in love with our goals for the first week or two, then we start to see the negatives in things. We doubt ourselves. Our life priorities get shifted as our responsibilities add up. The inertia that pushed us so hard in the beginning starts to wear off. We come up with excuses. To be frank, the love we felt during our honeymoon is no longer there. Following is a guide to setting reasonable, realistic goals, and implementing a set of strategies and tactics aimed to keep you from giving up during the year.
What can we do about avoiding the honeymoon effect? How can we set realistic goals that make a tangible impact in the upcoming year? Luckily, the same field of behavioral science that coined the term, “honeymoon effect”, also provides a set of means through which we can set ourselves up for success. To avoid the demoralization that happens when we aim too high, or the banality we inevitably experience when we aim too low. The “Goldie Locks” rule tells us our goals need to be just right.
One way to get our goals right it to set S.M.A.R.T. goals: This acronym, built upon from frameworks from the Microsoft Corporation, stands for set “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely”. Make your goals clear. Ambiguous goals give too much wiggle room for excuses. Don’t make your goals too hard that they discourage you, and make sure there’s a way to hold yourself accountable. Give yourself a reasonable time-frame for when you achieve that goal, and perhaps set a new one based on where you are at that moment in the future, not where you wanted to be last December. Structure the year into quarters and give yourself permission to adjust your goal as needed. Maybe it’s not how you envisioned achieving your New Year’s Resolution, but perhaps that ideal was just unattainable. Be like Goldie Locks and get it just right.
After determining the goal we want to achieve, the question we need to ask ourselves is a simple: “Why“? What’s the deeper meaning behind the resolution that’s important to you. Is your resolution to lose weight in order to avoid the health issues that may arise in the future? Then perhaps your “why” is to live a longer, more active life late into your senior years. Do you want to be a better role model for an overweight niece who thinks she can’t enact a healthier lifestyle? Or any other reason that’s meaningful to you. By providing yourself with a meaning for your resolution, writing it down, placing it in a place you’ll see everyday, you remind yourself why you set that resolution to begin with, and it’s a meaning that likely won’t change in a few months, or even a few years.
You’ve got your “why”, then it’s important to get to the “How“. How you are going to reach that goal is arguably just as important as “why”. You don’t want to achieve your goals by means that are inauthentic, or by cheating. If you do that, you’ll deprive yourself the every essence of your “why”. You may end up doing more damage than not having set a New Year’s Resolution to begin why. Your how may not be clear in the beginning, but avoid the pitfall of viewing your resolution as set in stone: you can adjust it in the future. While the “why” gives us a reason for performing a behavior, it’s the “how” that takes things one step further. At this stage we start action planning. Forming an action plan shows us a tangible path to start moving toward that ideal future self: the self that accomplished your New Year’s Resolution.
If you can’t do the work involved, achieving your goal is all the more unlikely. But let’s look at the role action planning plays in goal attainment, and why it’s so important. Action planning involves breaking down big goals into smaller, more manageable pieces; it involves identifying and sticking to a set of tasks that, if followed, guides you on your path to achieving your goals. We look at our schedule and see when we can fit those steps into our busy Google Calendar. Make room for it. You need only to look above for your reason why. Combining your how and your why is oftentimes incredibly powerful: “I want to have dinner with my kids three night per week and engage in meaningful conversation, so I can show them I care and they will do the same with their children”.
The study of Habit Formation, led by psychologist B.J. Fogg and built upon and applied to designing products, Nir Eyal, among many more, lend us frameworks for habit formation. In his best-selling book, “Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products”, Eyal (and Fogg) tell us that having a trigger is the first key to forming a new habit. We’re talking about that notification, symbol, or reminder that triggers the instinct telling us a behavior is supposed to be performed. It starts out as a conscious thing. “Oh yeah, it’s time to do X or Y”. But quicker than you might expect, you start to internalize that external reminder. Especially so when in the early stages of forming a habit, reminders and notifications serve as the “Trigger” in BJ Fogg’s theory of behavior: B= MAT. B = behavior. M = motivation. A = Ability. T = Trigger. If you don’t want to burn out before March, you need these three elements to win at your New Year’s Resolution.
Motivation is important in the early stages of doing the behavior, but it becomes less relevant after a person forms habits around the behavior. In other words, the first 30 days are key. Reminders serve as that critical trigger to let you know it’s time to be mindful of your resolution; it may start externally, with a push notification from your smart phone, but it will eventually become internalized. You won’t have to think about it anymore, and neither will those with whom that resolution involves.
Set reminders. This simple but often overlooked tactic reminds us when we need to take an action toward our goal, and ignoring the reminder requires a conscious effort to break a promise to yourself. Setting reminders serves as a trigger to perform an action. Achieving that action then provides a reward. Believe it or not, our brains are wired to reward us after a vigorous workout. And the fact that you’re one step closer to achieving your New Year’s Resolution is a further investment in that goal, likely to fuel the cycle of “Trigger, Action, Reward, Investment” that makes habits form.
Positive behaviors are easy when they become habits. You don’t want to force yourself to achieve that resolution, you want to build it into your routine. When that happens, you’ll feel as though the universe is pulling you toward your goal. Psychologists view people as having essentially two selves: the automatic self and the reflective self. The reflective self thinks about every decision and makes a bunch of mini-decisions and calculations to determine whether we are going to perform an action. With the reflective self, we, at the end of our lives, aim for the optimal number of utils, which is an economists way of describing the benefit we gain — kind of like a virtual currency like bitcoins.
In reflection, we consider and compare the net benefit of work and leisure. Reflecting on past decisions, why we made them, and incorporating that answer into present situations takes energy and becomes draining. You want to use your greater cognitive skills when necessary, but as much as possible, you want to default to the automatic self that makes smart decisions for you, with minimal drainage of mental energy that you’ll meed to apply to other goals, like resisting the aroma of freshly baked cookies. Forcing yourself takes mental energy; energy you can’t replenish right away, making you exhausted and leaving you with a negative sentiment toward that resolution.
People are cognitive misers. That’s a nice way of saying we don’t like to spend unnecessary mental energy making decisions when we can use mental shortcuts to determine our best course of action. That decision is almost always slanted towards convenience in the moment, unless a habit exists. When it comes to wellness decision making, the moment is everything.
To quote MIT Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely, “when thinking about ourselves in the future, we are all wonderful people who make great choices”. In other words, we’re really bad at predicting how we’ll act in the future. Scientists call this affective forecasting. We’re terrible at prediction the emotions our future selves will feel, the behaviors and excuses they will and won’t make. It’s a form of learned helplessness when we don’t think our actions will make a difference. We tell ourselves, “If only I get X, then I’ll be happy. And when I’m happy, I will start to work out”. The problem is, when we get to X, we adapt and our future present selves are like our past selves: they don’t want to do Y right now. And we push it off to our new future selves who act rationally all the time and always do what our past selves expected of them.
No matter where you look, there’s one element of goal attainment that is a surefire way to keep the motivation going, even when the honeymoon period wears off. That element is: meaning. Meaning seems to get at the essence of well-being, and improvements to well-being is ultimately the end goal. At the end of the day, what the science continues to show us is that people are most motivated when it comes from within; when the task and its consequences are important to us or the people we love. When we maintain a sense of meaning, our behaviors are fueled by an intrinsic motivation, and are less dependent upon external factors. We’re not the hamster chasing the carrot on a stick, we’re driving the car that’s holding the stick.
So with all these forces standing in our way, sticking to our New Year’s Resolutions sounds impossible. Well perhaps that’s why we set them each year and as quickly as we formed them: poof, they’re gone. Much of what motivates us comes down to expectations, so managing our expectations, keeping them in-line with our capabilities, helps us in this process. Expectancy theory proposes that effort is a function of motivation and outcomes (Vroom, 1968).
Unless a person answers “yes” to all three questions, they are not likely to adequately perform the behavior. At a very minimum, this suggests motivation to change behavior can be influenced by helping people reverse “no” answers. But there is an answer. The scientific community has compiled a list of “Behavior Change Techniques”, you can browse through and apply to your specific New Year’s resolution. Some are better for certain goals, and others better when applied to a different goal type. Some, when applied to incorrect goal types or personalities of the goal-setter, may even backfire. But you can use this detailed and comprehensive list to expand your view of ways you can win at this year’s New Years Resolution.
To help you in defining your “what”, “why”, “how”, and the steps like action planning and other techniques listed above, consider following a clearly defined set of questions that scientists use when designing behavior change interventions. It’s sounds fancy, but it’s pretty simple and takes no time at all.
Burnout happens when we’re sapped of energy. We no longer think our New Year’s resolutions are worth the work. Maybe next year, we tell ourselves, our future selves will set and stick to last year’s goals. Burnout is bad but it’s very real. To avoid burnout, form habits aimed at achieving your goals.
But take small steps. Don’t bite off more than you can chew, or you’re guaranteed to fail. Work small steps into your new year’s resolution such that you don’t get overwhelmed and quit early in the year. One of the least common and surprising ways to avoid burnout is to double down. Rather than giving up when we sense burnout on the horizon, research shows we can rid ourselves of burnout and actually gain energy when when we double down. Work twice as hard. It sounds counter-intuitive, but scientifically, it’s empirically based and proven in the research to be accurate.
Researched by Charles Duhigg and popularized by the likes of Tim Ferris, we’ve all heard of the 28 day rule when it comes to forming a habit. Changing your behavior from what you “want” to do, to what you “should” do is hard. Behavioral scientists refer to this as the “want”/ “should” conflict. And they saw evidence of this, back in the day, when we had Netflix DVD queues.
Certain movies stayed in people’s queue but were never ordered. People felt like they “should” watch Schindler’s List, but in the moment, when it comes down to it on the day you select which movie shows up next in the mail, that movie is not exactly on your date-night list. This defines what behavioral scientists call the “Want/Should” Fallacy. You want to be someone who wants to watch that movie, or you feel like you “should” go to the gym. But in the moment, who “wants” to. You’re going against every instinct your body is telling you. Going with the safer, more comfortable option is undoubtedly easier. But think about your future self. Think about the reasons you’ve set this goal. And stick with it.
Behavior change happens when people repeat desired behaviors and avoid undesired behaviors consistently over time; long enough for the behaviors to go from deliberate and energy-sapping to automatic and energy-efficient. According to “The Power of Full Engagement” by Loere and Schwartz, the science tells us that roughly 90% of all our activities are habit-driven; illustrating the limitations of relying on self control and willpower to change behaviors.
The interesting myth about habits is that you have to do them every day for 28 consecutive days in order for them to form. That’s somewhat correct.Habits are powerful ways of sticking to New Years Resolutions, and shouldn’t be discounted. Habits need not be daily. While we like to think that we have to perform a behavior every day for 28 days in order to form a habit, that’s a myth. What the researchers say is that in order to form a habit, we need to perform that behavior 28 period in a row. If your resolution is to do laundry every Saturday, you can form a habit around that, it will just take 28 consecutive weekends you wash your laundry on Saturdays. But what can you do to achieve that level of habit?
There are essentially two kinds of goals: behavioral and results– oriented. The distinction is crucial to setting goals that are attainable. In some situations, you may want to set one or the other. In other situations you might opt to start with one, gauge a baseline, and then set the other. So what’s the difference? A behavioral goal gets at the “how”. Going to the gym 3 days per week. Doing homework with your kids once per week. Results oriented goals set you up to either accomplish them or not. In the beginning of the year, knowing that we are overly ambitious in our goal setting, it might make sense to start with a behavioral goal. Then when that behavioral goal becomes a habit, you’ll be in a more realistic circumstance with proper knowledge to set an ambitious, but win-able results-oriented goal.
People are fundamentally lazy when it comes to using unnecessary mental energy (see Cognitive Misery), and the decision to do so comes down to how easy it is in the moment and whether the person thinks they can do it without feeling bad, given the other things at their disposal. A decision like that is based on a long history of memories and thoughts associated with the behavior, is influenced by a whole host of stimuli, and compared with everything else they could do, like stay home and watch TV (I have to know who gets kicked off The Bachelor). In that respect, attitude is everything. With regard to both physical activity and goals relating to quitting smoking, studies have shown that the amount of planning, our attitude toward achieving our goal, and our attitude when we make mistakes or if it appears we won’t achieve our goal, are frequently key wrenches in the gap between what we want to do, and what we feel we should do if we want to win at our New Year’s resolution.
Attitudes play a big role — and they can be influenced by the darndest things (see Heuristics). According to social psychology, attitudes are viewed as either positive or negative and are formed according to the ABC’s: affect, or how we feel about something; behavior, or what we physically do; and cognition, how we think about it. Attitudes and behaviors share a reciprocal relationship, meaning how we think affects our behaviors and how we act affects our thinking. In the ABC model, if you can change the way a person thinks about a behavior and can get them to do the behavior consistently over time, the research shows that the attitude will catch up to align with the thinking and doing; part of the human tendency to avoid cognitive dissonance. And the same concept applies to the other levers in the ABC equation.
Make a plan and monitor yourself. Action planning involves breaking down goals into manageable pieces; it involves identifying and sticking to a set of tasks that, if followed, guides a person on a path to achieving their goals. Researchers argue that when it comes to self monitoring, simplicity is likely the key. Use the myriad of apps out there to help you keep track of progress toward your goals; and look for one’s that provide positive feedback along the way.
Look for positive reinforcement. Don’t throw a pity party. And don’t go fishing for complements. This tactic is merely meant for you to pay attention to those around you. When you get a complement, say “Thank You”. No matter what you were trained to think as a child, believe that people are genuine when they reinforce your behaviors. What’s more, don’t be shy when it comes to doling out genuine complements yourself. Prosocial behavior, things we do for others without necessarily expecting something back, is contagious. The more you complement others, they more complements will go around — and inevitably, if you’re sticking to your resolution, some will come your way.
Set small goals and don’t get discouraged. If great weightless is your resolution, it may be helpful to set monthly goals for the full 12 months. And keep them adjustable, so long as you’re not making excuses. Setting behavioral goals is often a good way to go. Resolve to go to the gym X times per week. That way you set large but manageable goals, without linking it directly to a target weight.
In the study of well-being, championed by the father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, psychologists and behavioral scientists look to the evidence in asking, “What makes people flourish?”As outlined in his groundbreaking book, Flourish, the 5 elements that people can be taught to seek out in their lives can be summed up in five simple letters. Leveraging ideas and findings from the related field of positive and behavioral psychology, Seligman proposed that the elements of a life well lived can be summed up with the letters P-E-R-M-A: expressing and being around positive emotion; being engaged in what you’re doing; successful relationships; having a sense of meaning; and experiencing the rewards of achievement.
At the very core, much of what the literature talks about with respect to positive behavior change, the ultimately the behavior change we want to set our resolutions around, comes down to increasing some element of PERMA. Positive emotion: which is way more than just happiness. Engagement in what you’re doing comes down to getting into some sort of flow. Relationships are however we define them. Meaning is something we can only acquire from within. And achievement depends on the goals we set (our expectations), along with the genuine praise and feedback we receive.
In summary, the motivation to perform a behavior boils down to the diligence to learn and practice what a person needs to know; whether or not a person decides to use that knowledge to perform the behavior; how well they decide to do it; and whether they decide to continue to do it over time. Over time, the behavior becomes habit and you won’t recognize a life without it. It will come naturally and take no cognitive effort to make the decision to perform your resolution. In fact, the opposite will happen: it will start to take mental energy and effort not to do it. All of that takes effort and the right circumstances. So best of luck and we at Davis Islands Pharmacy wish you a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2019! You’ve got this! If the staff at Davis Islands Pharmacy can help in any way, please don’t hesitate to reach out!
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At Davis Islands Pharmacy, the longest established pharmacy in Tampa, we offer more than just prompt prescriptions at competitive prices. We may have been around since 1949, but that doesn’t mean we’re not ahead of the curve. Our technology infrastructure is constantly evolving to make life easier for our patients. We continually monitor your prescriptions for cheaper prices, and we’ll ask you and your doctor if you’re eligible for generic, or less expensive forms, when perhaps a brand name was prescribed.
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