How to keep your dwindling New Year’s Resolutions

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UT Psychology Professor and author of the book Smart Thinking Art Markman expresses his thoughts on New Years Resolutions. Markman explains why people fail and how to avoid failure, as well as how to restart.

Photo Credit: Shelby Tauber | Daily Texan Staff

Only two weeks into January, it is likely that many resolutions have already been broken. The beginning of the semester marks a new start for college students, and psychology professor Art Markman, the author of the book “Smart Thinking”, explains why people fail, how to avoid failure and what to do to restart. 

Daily Texan: The most popular New Year’s resolutions include eating healthy, consuming less alcohol and exercising more. Why do you think these resolutions are so popular?
Art Markman: One of the reasons these resolutions are so popular is because we believe everyone else around us is doing them, and so we are influenced by what everybody else is thinking. Eating better, exercising, drinking less are long-term health-related behaviors, where it’s more fun not to do those behaviors than to do them, and so we get into many habits that keep us doing the wrong thing. At some point it becomes difficult to imagine living our lives in a different way. So, we take the landmarks in our lives like birthdays, New Year’s, graduation, and think of them as times to step back and take into account what we can do differently. 

DT: Why do you think so many people fail at keeping their resolutions?
Markman: We don’t take into account how hard it is to change. All of these habits you’ve gotten into are habits that you have built up over a period of years, and a week before New Year’s you think, “I’m going to do something different.” The big thing is, if you want to succeed at resolutions, you need to start more than a week in advance of planning and remember that a lot of the habits you have are things that you no longer even think about. All of these things take advanced planning to integrate into your life, and that takes some work. 

DT: What can people do to make more proactive plans? What stages of planning do we need to focus on?
Markman: Several things you need to do, before you start trying to fix your behavior you have to pay attention to what your behavior actually is. Take a week or two weeks and create a habit diary where you write down what you are actually doing right now and the situations where you are doing it. Get to know what your current behaviors are because chances are you are unaware of a lot of the situations where you are doing the things you are trying to change. 

Once you get to know yourself, figure out the obstacles that are getting in your way from doing what you want to do. You have to be really realistic about what those obstacles are, because they won’t go away simply because you want to change
your behavior. 

You need to make specific plans to go around those obstacles. If you are planning to exercise, when you’re too tired to do it, what are you going to do? It’s great to find an exercise buddy, because it’s really easy to say, “I’m not going to exercise.” But it’s harder to blow off your friend. It keeps you on track. It’s crucial to engage other people.

Set positive goals rather than negative goals. A positive goal is “I’m going to eat healthier.” A negative goal is “I’m going to eat less.” It’s hard to eat less. What does that even mean? It means you’re not doing something you used to do, and the human mind isn’t designed to learn to do things that are not
doing something. 

Set goals that are lifestyle-changing, process-changing and not outcome-changing. Instead of focusing your goal on an outcome, focus on a process. The process needs to be very specific, like exercising every Monday and Thursday at 4 o’clock. 

DT: How do we change our thinking to have a positive outlook?
Markman: Find something that will allow you to achieve the goal you want to achieve on a daily basis. Rather than obsessing over food, get into a walking class or a cooking class, become the wizard of making soups and teach yourself a new thing. Your friends will all be impressed and cooking at home is cheaper than going out. As a side effect it’ll turn out that you are eating better. 

Published on January 16, 2013 as "Are you keeping your resolution".