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I Resolve To …

| January 3, 2017

by Jim Bruce

Resolutions.  Along with the arrival of the New Year come New Year’s Resolutions.  This is neither new nor all that unique.  Babylonians made New Year’s Resolutions 2500 years ago.  And, since then everyone has followed. 
In a typical year about 40% of all Americans make resolutions to improve themselves in some way.  Popular past resolutions have included losing weight, exercising more, taking on more responsibility in their jobs, reducing stress, spending more time with families, being more polite, becoming a better listener, etc.  In a study about a decade ago at the University of Bristol, researchers found that only 12% of the people who make resolutions are successful in achieving them even though 57% were initially confident that they would be successful.
Research at the Harvard School of Education by Professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey has identified two general types of resolutions or goals – technical goals and adaptive goals.  A technical goal is something that you can develop – e.g., becoming a better listener, developing a new skill.  To be successful here, you develop a plan with milestones and execute the plan including putting in the hours of hard work to become proficient.  Success comes through executing the plan.  Sharing the goal and your plan, and asking for regular feedback on your progress, significantly increases the likelihood of your success.
In the case of an adaptive goal, success requires more than just a change in behavior.  It requires some rewiring in your brain and that can take some time (and may even feel like failure in the short run).  In these instances, the behavior you desire to change is also serving some other very important purpose that provides positive benefits to you.  For example, to be successful you may have to change how you respond to a stimulus:  Dinner has ended and you have a strong urge to smoke after dinner.  And, while you know that smoking is bad for your health and you have a goal to stop, you really enjoy interacting with others while you smoke.  Your desire for the social interaction with others is a major impediment to success in stopping smoking.  So, addressing an adaptive goal is not fundamentally dealing with a behavior.  Rather, it is changing a mindset.  The mindset has to change in order for the behavior to change.
This is very difficult.  As Art Markman – founding director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations and the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at The University of Texas at Austin – notes, it is very hard to make such systematic changes in your behavior.  He notes that setting goals is closely related to establishing new habits.  And, as we know from Charles Duhigg’s work, it is much harder to stop a “bad” habit than it is to establish a new, productive one.   In fact, given the habit loop – of impulse, action, reward – it is much easier to replace a bad action with a good one than it is to simply stop the bad action.  As an example, I remember many years ago when my father replaced his habit of smoking with one of eating a “Lifesaver” mint.
Markman also points out that to be successful you have to make realistic plans for what you want to change about yourself.  And, you have to be very specific.  If your goal is to exercise more (a technical goal), you have to begin by asking yourself what “exercising more” will actually look like.  Is it going to a gym on a regular basis?  Is it running?  Is it spending time on the treadmill that is now gathering dust in your basement?  You need to be specific.  And, then you have to turn to your calendar and allocate time there – four days a week?  An hour each day?  Unless you are very, very specific, you will find obstacles that you will permit  (after all it is your choice) you to divert your attention from your goal.
And, you should be kind to yourself.  Behavior change is very hard.  You’ll have days when you will succeed and ones when you will fail, sometimes miserably.  See when you fail as an opportunity to learn, to discover what led to the failure and what you need to change in order to engender success in the future.  Don’t let failure be a justification for you to give up.  You can succeed at your goals, at your New Year’s Resolutions.  Develop your daily calendar so that you will succeed.
Author Kevin Kruse summarizes all this in seven steps based on the work of Paul Marciano, a Yale educated clinical psychologist and author of Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work:

  1. Clearly define your goals.  Make them SMART:  specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.
  2. Track your progress.  “If you can’t measure it, you can’t change it.”
  3. Have patience.  Making lasting changes takes time.
  4. Publicize your goals for family and friends.  Social support dramatically increases your likelihood of success.
  5. Put it on your schedule.  Commit to it.  That which is scheduled gets done.
  6. Stop your “all or nothing thinking;”  it’s better to do something than nothing.  Any effort towards your goal is better than nothing.
  7. Get up, when you slip up.  As Vince Lombardi said, “It isn’t whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you bet back up.”  Resiliency is the key.

(These seven steps don’t just work for New Year’s Resolutions.  They actually can provide very good support for your work on all of your goals and their underlying practices.)
So, do make New Year’s Resolutions.  And, make careful plans so that you will succeed.  Make these plans a priority and include them when you are doing your weekly and daily planning and calendaring.  If you don’t, the careful plans will be only good intentions that you will be enticed to ignore and then forget.  Trust me on this;  I’ve been there and done that more times than I can count!
As we begin this new year, I wish for you a wonderful new year and many opportunities to use and further develop your skills as a leader.
.  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

Julia Ryan, A Harvard Professor Reveals How To Make New Year’s Resolutions That You Can Actually Keep, The Atlantic, December 31, 2013.
Art markman, How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions, Time, December 28, 2015.
Charles DuhiggThe Power of Habit, Random House, 2012.
Kevin Kruse, A Psychologist’s Secrets To Making New Year’s Resolutions Stick, Forbes, January 3, 2016.
Paul Marciano, Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, McGraw-Hill, 2010.