Almost half of American adults make one or more New Year resolutions every year and fail. That’s probably why the other half of the population doesn’t even bother. Here why New Year resolutions fail and a strategy to make them stick.
The most common resolutions are about weight loss, exercise and smoking. I see this first hand in all of my speaking engagements. When I give the audience a chance to make commitments, they almost always are about their health.
I remember speaking at an elitefor for insurance "producers," Forum 400. They had an opportunity to share commitments for actions that they needed to take to reach their goals. So I called on one of them to sahe and was expecting to hear about putting on seminars, prospecting for strategic alliances, meeting for financial reviews with their high net worth clients, gift tax and trust opportunities or succession issues.
Instead what do I hear? “I’m committed to losing weight.”
Now I have an opportunity to coach a person in front of the entire room. So I say, “What does that mean?” This allows me to introduce a concept that will dramatically impact your final outcome: “be specific.”
I then talk about the concept of “precision probing.” One reason that commitments don’t turn into long-term habits and actions is because the commitment is not specific enough. The precision probing model will solve this. It’s simple, who, what, when, where and then add the word specifically.
So back to “I’m committed to losing weight?” I ask myself, what don’t I know about this statement and I ask that of the advisor I'm coaching in the format of blank specifically. “How much specifically?”
The advisor typcially might say “I want to lose forty pounds.” This is still a vague statement so I ask “by when specifically?” He gives me an answer, let’s say by the end of the year. This brings up another problem with New Years resolutions. “It’s the starting that stops most people.”
The end of the year is too far out. It’s got to be very short-term and a small step. So I ask, “What does this mean for this week?” The advisor typically replies that they would like to lose one pound. This seems reasonable so I ask “how are you going to do this?”
My coaching clients typcially respond with another vague response, “I’ll eat less and exercise more.”
What the heck does that mean? Any time you hear the words less or more, qualifiers, challenge them with the precision probing model of blank specifically.
So I focus on one thing, exercise. “What specifically will you do for exercise this week?” The client says, “I’ll work out five times this week.”
Now, as a coach I could go several directions on this one. What don’t I know? What does the client mean by work out? Again, not being specific. However, to save time I go a different route. I check for reality.
“How many times did you exercise last week?” The most common response I get back is 0.
“How about the week before that?” Again, another 0, and before that 0, etc.
This is a third major reason that New Year resolutions fall flat on their faces: unrealistic commitments.
I explain to the group that you can’t commit to workout five times when your history is 0 followed by 0 followed by 0!
I ask “would it be good if you worked out four times this week?” Most of the time the client says “Yes!”
Then, I ask if working out three times would be good and, again, I hear, "yes!" This client is making an unrealistic commitment and has just about a zero chance of succeeding. You can almost guarantee that there will be circumstances, obstacles, unscheduled priorities, interruptions, that all get in the way preventing this person from doing what they said they would do. Unless….
So, let’s say that the client agrees to a minimum level commitment of working out two days this week. They’d like to work out four times but are only committing to and being held accountable to two. They can go ahead and reset their baseline by working out four or five times and then commit higher next week, but they only have the behavioral credibility to commit to the lower level of two times.
This brings up another key component for successful New Years resolutions: take small, realistic steps.
However, this too is doomed for failure unless an intervention compensates for human nature.
We are all genetically coded to avoid the highest level of perceived pain and seek comfort. We are genetically coded to see threats, to be negative. We are not coded to look in a meadow and appreciate the beauty. We are coded instead to look in a meadow and see the lion that is barely visible. We are coded for survival. We are coded to be fat, not thin because of the scarcity of food for caveman we are coded to binge, to eat well beyond our nutritional needs and to store the excess as fat.
Human evolution does this by delaying the appestat area of the brain from signaling the fat cells that we have had enough caloric intake and therefore suppress hunger. This delay favors survival enabling caveman to eat more because he may not have a protein source like this captured deer for another week.
In fact, all of our evolutionary instincts are to recognize what can hurt us and to compel avoidance. This is not based on the truth. It’s simply based on this no-longer-appropriate human survival instinct.
For example, the flight or fight mechanism will save your life if you see a bear. Your breathing will increase, you will get a shot of adrenalin, cortisol, your blood circulation rises, blood leaves the extremities for the major muscle groups so if you’re clawed you won’t bleed to death. Digestion stops, endorphins are released so you won’t feel pain. You are instinctively put into a state where you can run as fast as possible or stay and fight as strong as possible.
This automatic response even occurs precognitive. In other words, before you are even aware that you are looking at a dangerous and hungry bear you are already running away. This instinct favors survival so you live to pass it on. However, the problem is that these protective instincts occur regardless of the truth and validity of the threat. For example, you are driving and someone cuts you off in traffic. You get the exact fight or flight response physiologically but it’s not a true threat. You are sitting in your car. Your life is not being threatened but you respond as if it was. The key is to recognize what the real competitor is to your reaching your goals, human nature. You are genetically coded to recognize the highest level of pain and avoid it for comfort. You are an avoidance machine!
Once you recognize this, you can work with it and stop fighting it. Here’s what this means for your commitment to exercise two times this week.
You make the commitment, exercise two times. (And you’re specific about what exercise means.) So this meeting the first issue, it is specific. You also meet the second consideration, it’s a short term commitment, the next seven days, and it is a small step with specific actions. You also pass the third test, it’s realistic.
So why won’t you do it consistently? Because this is only half of a commitment. You haven’t acknowledged the failure reason number four, recognizing the true competition, human nature and having an intervention. Human nature states that all human performance is the avoidance of pain or the seeking of comfort.
Your brain is designed to search like a computer to find any links of your commitment to pain, and it will find it. Here are a few:
1. Exercise hurts
2. You’re tired
3. You have aches and pains
4. You don’t have enough time
5. It’s inconvenient.
Your brain instantly links your commitment to exercise to life threatening pain. This triggers the survival mechanism and you are compelled to avoid. This then impacts your perceptions. You don’t see opportunities to exercise. Instead you focus how you have been genetically coded to focus on the perceived threat and you avoid it.
The brain doesn’t say that you’re not really tired, it just holds it as if it is a life threatening event and compels you to avoid. When you avoid you will then justify the avoidance with rationalization and never think that you’re avoiding -- unless you implement an intervention.
One more example before the intervention. I was sitting in a real estate office many years ago and this is what I saw. A new lender walks into the office carrying her rate sheets. She was trained to go into real estate offices and meet with the realtors who can give her their buyers. She was trained on how to approach them, what to say, and what to point out on the rate sheets, etc. She was trained on everything except on how to handle what came next.
The owner of the company saw her walk into the office. He came storming out of his office grabbed her business card, tore it up and threw it at her shouting this is how much I want to see you in my office. Now get out! The poor woman left the office in tears.
Here is what happened mentally and physiologically for this lender. The activity of prospecting was linked to pain. The area of the brain that fires upon real physical pain, the anterior cingulate, also fires upon mental pain, in this case the tremendous rejection. Next the hypothalamus forms a memory and releases stress hormone between the outer cortex, the executive thinking part of the brain, the intentions area, and the amygdale, a part of the arousal, fear based limbic system buried deep in the brain.
A cortical limbic loop is created and strengthens with the stress hormones. Now the next time this woman even thinks about calling on a real estate office this memory will be triggered and it will lead to the same physiological state that the woman was in when this first happened. This is called learned helplessness.
This lender will not prospect again but will rationalize and justify why she is just too busy to call on this office --unless there is an intervention. It’s actually called behavioral contracting.
Behavioral contracting is making a specific declaration (exercise two times, or call on this real estate office) plus accountability. Accountability has two parts. The first part is the check in. Someone outside of yourself checks in with you and verifies that you did what you said you would do. The second part is the consequence for non performance. There must be a painful consequence if you don’t do what you said you would do. This consequence must be more painful than the pain of the activity. Now you are tapping into human natures’ genetic coding of avoiding the highest level of perceived pain for the comfort.
If the highest level of pain is the consequence then you will be compelled to avoid. How do you avoid, by doing the activity you said you would do.
Try it yourself. If this realtor would put $1000 as a fine if she didn’t go into that office this week, I promise you that the pain of losing the $1000 would far outweigh the perceived pain of the activity of going into the office.
The bottom line: she will still be an avoidance machine, but she will be avoiding the penalty by doing the action. Here is a summary of what stops new years resolutions from working. No, let me turn it around.
Here is a summary of what ensures New Years resolution are kept:
1. Goals are specific.
2. Short term focus with small steps and specific activities.
3. Commitments are realistic and based on previously established behavior.
4. You recognize the true competitor, human nature and you have an intervention.
5. You use behavioral contracting-specific declaration plus accountability.
Accountability equals the check in with an enforceable consequence (painful) for non performance. Try this with just one new years resolution for one week at a time and you will be very happy with the result.