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Is that a promise?

| January 9, 2018

by Jim Bruce

Making and Keeping New Year’s Promises (a.k.a. Resolutions)

It’s nine days into 2018 and most of us who made New Year’s resolutions still remember them.  New Year’s resolutions are neither new nor unique to modern humanity.  Babylonians made New Year’s Resolutions some 4,000 years ago.  In their celebrations, they made promises to their gods to pay debts and to return borrowed objects.  These promises can be considered the forerunners of our New Year’s resolutions.
Similar practices occurred in Rome under Julius Caesar.  And, later early Christians used the first day of the year for thinking about one’s past mistakes and resolving to do and be better in the future.  Today, making New Year’s resolutions is mostly a secular practice, with people making resolutions only to themselves and focusing primarily on self-improvement.  Research indicates that some 45% of Americans typically make New Year’s resolutions with 8% of them achieving their goals. 
To increase the likelihood that you will be in the 8% who achieve their goals, I suggest that you begin by changing your nomenclature.  Instead of speaking and thinking about resolutions, begin to speak and think about promises you have willingly made to yourself.  Like, why?  Because words like resolve, plan, commit, propose, expect, etc., all have a sense of ambiguity about them.  There is “wiggle” room that lets you escape from your commitment.  On the other hand, “promise” represents a much stronger commitment, much like “will.”  Your, and my, initial reaction to this is likely to say, it’s only words.  But, not so.  
Neuroscience informs us that words, and how we use them, are deeply encoded in our neural pathways, and that these pathways strengthen over time.  If your early life was at all like mine, the word “promise” was used to signify what I had committed (or been committed) to do.  I can remember clearly my mother beginning sentences “James Donald promise that you will …” or “James Donald, you promised to …”  Use of my first and middle names along with the word “promise” or “promised” clearly signified that a firm, binding commitment was involved, and that my commitment was being called into question.  Over time those experiences strengthened the encoding of this word and gave it deeper meaning.  Today, when I use the word “promise, it’s really going to get done.  You may have had a similar experience.
So, let’s use the word “promises” when we speak of New Year’s resolutions to emphasize that we are firmly committed to act on them.
Research at the Harvard School of Education by Professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey has identified two general types of goals (clearly, our promises are a subset of our goals) – technical and adaptive.  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 your likelihood of 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 has positive benefits. To be successful you may have to change how you respond to a stimulus.  For example, 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 made a promise to stop, you enjoy interacting with others while you smoke.  Your desire for the social interaction with others is a major impediment to success in your stopping your smoking.  So, addressing an adaptive goal is not fundamentally about dealing with a behavior.  Rather, it is changing a mindset about your interacting socially.  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 such 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 eating a “Lifesaver” mint.  (Smoking stopped, mint consumption skyrocketed.)
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 that will 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” to divert your attention away from your goal.  I find it helpful in these situations to walk step-by-step through the process of doing what I’ve promised to do so that I can get the details right.
And, you should be kind to yourself.  Reaching almost any meaningful goal is difficult.  And, in particular, 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 Promises.  Take the steps necessary to make success more certain.
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 goal and develop a plan making sure that it is achievable.  (Jen Miller, New York Times writer and author, writes that a goal is often wrong for you if someone else is telling you to do it, it’s too vague, or you don’t have a plan.  So, be sure that it’s right for you.)  The goal and the plan should be 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.  And, no plan is perfect.  However, you can get back on track.  Cut yourself some slack.  Recognize the progress you’ve made, be positive and realistic.
  4. Publicize your goals to your family, friends, and colleagues.  Social support dramatically increases your likelihood of success.
  5. Put it on your schedule.  Commit to it.  That which is scheduled has a much better chance of getting 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.  And, if you really get behind, start over.  It’s O.K.
  7. Get up, when you slip up.  As Vince Lombardi said, “It isn’t whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get back up.”  Resiliency is the key. 

(These seven steps don’t just work for New Year’s Promises.  They actually can provide very good support for your work on all of your goals and the underlying practices.)
So, do make New Year’s Promises.  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 turn the calendar to 2018, all my colleagues at MOR Associates and I wish for you a wonderful new year and many opportunities to use and further develop your leadership skills.
.  .  .  .  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.
[Much of today’s essay is drawn from the Tuesday Reading for January 5, 2017, I Resolve To.]
Julia Ryan, A Harvard Professor Reveals How To Make New Year’s Resolutions That You Can Actually Keep, The Atlantic, December 31, 2013.
Jen Miller, How to Make (and Keep) a New Year’s Resolution, New York Times, December 26, 2017. 
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.