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I Resolve

| January 10, 2023

by MOR Associates

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Jim Bruce, 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.  Jim may be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.]

It’s ten days into 2023 and most of us who made New Year’s resolutions still remember them.  Some 45% of Americans typically make New Year’s resolutions with 9% of them achieving their goals.

To increase the likelihood that you will be in the 9% 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 commitments you willingly make to yourself.  Why? Because words such as resolve, plan, propose, expect, promise, all have some sense of ambiguity about them.  There is “wiggle” room that lets you escape from your “resolution.” On the other hand, “commitment” seems to represent a much stronger intent to really act, much like “will.” Our 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 some specific thing.  I can clearly remember 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 to me 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 a deeper meaning. Today, when I use the word “commitment,” it’s really going to get done. You may have had a similar experience.

So, let’s use the word “commitments” when we speak of New Year’s resolutions to emphasize that we are firmly “committed” to act on them.

Commitments are a type of goal.  Research has identified two general types of goals – technical and adaptive. A technical goal is something that you can develop – e.g., becoming a better listener, becoming a better basketball player, 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, will significantly increase your likelihood of success.

In the case of an adaptive goal, success requires more than just a change in your behavior. It requires some “rewiring” in your brain and that can take some time (and may even feel like a 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 commitment to stop, you enjoy interacting with others while you smoke. Your desire for social interaction with others is a major impediment to success in you 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. It is very hard to make such systematic changes in your behavior. Setting such goals is closely related to establishing new habits. 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.)

To be successful you have to make realistic plans for what you want to change about yourself.  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? Success requires that you 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.

And, you should be kind to yourself. Reaching almost any meaningful goal is difficult. 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 Commitments. Take the seven steps necessary to make success more certain.

  1. Clearly define your goal and develop a plan to make sure that it is achievable. (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.)
  2. Track your progress. “If you can’t (or won’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 all of your goals.)

So, do make New Year’s Resolutions.  And, make careful plans so that you will succeed in your commitments. Make these plans a priority and include them when you are doing your weekly and daily planning and calendaring. If you don’t, they 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!

.  . .  . jim

This Week’s Survey

Which best describes any New Year resolutions you may have set for 2023:

From Last Week

Last week we asked what’s possible for you in 2023.  If you would like to have your response included to our four questions, there is still time.  Refer to last week’s reading for more information.