New Year's resolutions are such a powerful cultural construct that even those of use who say we don't make them sometimes secretly find ourselves, come January 1st, vowing to floss more. Today, we're talking about what the science says about how to get resolutions-- or any goals-- to stick. We'll pick apart seven of the most common dud resolutions that are typically abandoned by February, and let you know how to make them more meet-able.
Follow Baggage Check on Instagram @baggagecheckpodcast and get sneak peeks of upcoming episodes, give your take on guests and show topics, gawk at the very good boy Buster the Dog, and send us your questions!
Here's more on Dr. Andrea Bonior and her book Detox Your Thoughts.
Here's more on this podcast, which somehow you already found (thank you!)
Credits: Beautiful cover art by Danielle Merity, exquisitely lounge-y original music by Jordan Cooper
Okay, on to today's show. Do you make New Year's resolutions? Many of us scoff at it, even while secretly doing it. The idea of a fresh new year often comes with a desire to start totally anew and revise our lives. But most of us barely make it into February with our goals intact. And a lot of us, if we're being honest, we're probably just kind of recycling the same resolutions over and over and over again. What would it take to make our resolution stick? I have to laugh, because in my notes, I accidentally wrote how to make resolutions “stink,” which honestly is kind of what we're talking about today, because we're going to take some of the commonly failing resolutions that really do not work so well, and we're going to make them less stinky. We're going to make them more likely to stick because research on goal setting and achievement, it has so much to teach us. We know that our resolutions need to strike the right balance of being challenging enough to be interesting and meaningful, but not unrealistic. We need to have extremely specific roadmaps and methods spelled out on how to meet these goals, and we need to focus on the process rather than the outcome. Maybe we choose one or two resolutions rather than an extreme makeover of our entire selves. So there's so much data to help us do better, and goal setting in general. It's a really well studied area of psychology. It's something we'll talk a lot about on Baggage Check going forward. But today we're starting small, just like we should with our goals. We're just going to look at some simple pitfalls that I see most often when it comes to New Year's resolutions. So here are some of the most common resolutions and the most commonly failing ones. No coincidence that those two categories kind of overlap. So we see these over and over again, these resolutions, but let's talk about how to clean them up a bit, make them more functional so that they're more likely to stick, not stink, and become habits. Number one, lose 15 pounds. This one is pretty much the cliche of the bunch. So we're starting with it. And there are so many angles to address about it. Like the fact that weight loss in its own right is not really the best marker of health, and the fact that our society holds up thinness as some sort of ideal, some sort of optimization without regard to other aspects of wellbeing, but we're not even going there. Not on this episode anyway. We will definitely touch on that stuff, uh, get into the weeds of it in the future. But instead, let's say that this truly is your goal. Lose 15 pounds, that you want to lose weight, that it is medically appropriate and safe for you to do so. The problem with this goal is that even with a specific number of pounds, which we'll get into later about how important the specificity is, this is a goal that's based on outcome, not on effort. So it's lacking the fundamental pathway that tells us what to do. It would be like asking somebody directions to the nearest gas station and them saying, “Arrive at the nearest gas station.” And we say, “What?” And they say, “Well, that's how you get there. You go there.” And you say, “Hmmm, I think I'm in the middle of a David Lynch film, but thank you very much.” When you make a goal, you have to sketch out the pathway that you'll be moving on-- the directions, not just the point where you want to magically show up. This is not just important for achieving the goal, but also for rewarding your progress along the way, reward the work itself, the effort-- not the outcome or the effects. That outcome is less perfectly in your control than the effort is. After all, if you're trying for weight loss, sometimes the scale will just be fluky or you're retaining water, or you had a stomach bug and riding that roller coaster of the ups and downs that's not really completely tied to your effort, that's only going to get you frustrated. And the good news is, if you've planned your pathway right, and it really makes sense, then consistent effort over time will lead to the outcome you want, whether you're retaining water or not. And you're less likely to give up because of some random blip on the screen that doesn't even reflect your effort. You'll be feeling good because of your effort. You'll be building momentum rather than getting sidetracked by wanting to throw the scale out the window. And here's a tip about choosing pathways. You'll get the best match of a pathway by thinking about why the goal is important to you in the first place. So with losing weight, if it's because you want to eat more healthily, then make that part of your strategy and get specific. “Decrease the sugar in my morning coffee over time from one teaspoon to half a teaspoon,” or “Eat leafy greens for lunch on Monday and Wednesday.” Think behavior, not outcome. If losing weight is important to you because you want to increase muscle strength or flexibility or do something good for your heart, then maybe your pathway involves increasing your body movement. So, ask yourself with any resolution or goal or vision that you're setting for yourself. When I'm making this goal, am I describing the specific effort I want to put forth or am I just naming the outcome- the arrival point? If the answer is the arrival point, your goal needs some work and you need to define the action you'll take to get there. Which leads us to number two: Exercise more, or we'll do a bonus in this one-- Eat healthier. I guess that should be “Eat more healthily.” This is not my anal grammarian podcast, though, that comes out on Wednesdays. So we're going to focus on the content of these goals rather than the syntax. Let's take the exercise one first. And I just alluded to this exercise more as a potential pathway, but now I'm going to pick it apart. Yep, a plot twist. So
“exercise more” as a goal. It is definitely a bit improved over “Lose 15 pounds” because it does focus on the action that you specifically want to take. It has something of a pathway, that's good, but I think most of us know, maybe even from personal experience, that this goal is pretty commonly abandoned as well. Gym memberships, classically skyrocket after the holidays. Even if the vast majority of those new exercisers clear out by Valentine's Day, maybe they clear out by the end of January even. Or maybe by the time the New Year's sparkling cider has gone from their fridge. People buy expensive equipment, they download apps, they start fitness challenges. But the problem with this “exercise more” is that it lacks specific and realistic quantifiability. What does “more” even mean? You need something tangible and concrete and numerical so that you can build consistency slowly and realistically and have some accountability. To know that you're on the right track, you've got to map out the tiny daily steps that you want to achieve and focus on the consistent meaning of those rather than the all or none swoop of a major change. In fact, why give your money to a gym at all if that's not particularly convenient or realistic? Start smaller with what you've got. “Take the stairs to my office on Fridays,” or “park in that way off spot on Mondays.” Or “dance to a fast paced song I like every day before dinner.” That will all jumpstart more tangible progress. And if you choose a daily goal, keep it small and know that doing it for two or three weeks straight will help to have it solidify. With “eat healthier” or “more healthily”-- vagueness, once again, is the downfall. Also, eat healthier implies an overly aspirational rehaul of the type of person that we are. After all, how we eat is a pretty big part of our being. Stay yourself, but just make a few small changes. That way, you won't feel like you've fallen off some wagon because you're no longer a healthy person after that fourth sleeve of Girl Scout cookies. So again, start small and realistic. How about starting to do Meatless Mondays? Or replacing the pasta you make most often with whole wheat? Or learning how to cook one new healthy meal by the 15th of each month? These changes allow you to pat yourself on the back as you go, and they significantly reduce the possibility that you'll go all or none and feel like you've failed before the holiday decorations even come down. Number three: “quit vaping” or “quit smoking.” This is a very healthy goal, of course, but it can also be a frustrating one that's bound to fail. After all, with this goal, the problem is, when can you actually say that you've met the goal? After a month? A year? When your obituary comes out? This goal's problem isn't just that you don't have a specific pathway like we talked about already, but it's that you have no way of feeling like you can mark your progress. Instead, spell out exactly the steps that you'll use to cut down gradually and give yourself plenty of positive reinforcement for many milestones along the way. Here's a madeover goal that's much more likely to stick: use an online support group, gum, and fidgets to lessen my cigarettes by 20% at the end of January, and have a smoke-free week by St. Patrick's Day when I'll treat myself to a spa treatment. Maybe cutting down 20% is giving a math barrier when I shouldn't have put one, but you can make up whatever numbers you want. The important part is that there's accountability for small steps and reward. Oh, and while we're on the subject of smoking or vaping, here is something important. I've worked with a lot of people over the years trying to quit habits. And when it comes to smoking or vaping nicotine, most people focus on that nicotine part only. So let's say they're cutting down to vaping five times a day rather than 15, for instance. And from a nicotine dependence standpoint, that is a great way to cut down, because they'll gradually be diminishing their intake of nicotine. Of course, there are those that quit cold turkey and bare knuckle it through the withdrawal symptoms, which does work for some, but we're not going to focus on that right now. We're trying to talk about goal-setting. We should do a whole episode on nicotine, and hopefully we'll have that sometime soon. Anyway. For people looking to gradually diminish their nicotine, there's an important reason that this sometimes backfires, and that's that as people are cutting down on the amount of times they smoke or vape, they tend to, quote, unquote, “SAVE” their cigarettes for the times that they need them most. And so the behavioral reinforcement, the emotional conditioning of “I'm stressed, I need a cigarette,” stays intact more than ever. It actually gets strengthened because now you're saving those cigarettes for when you are really, really, really stressed. So that conditioned response of, um, if I'm stressed, I need a cigarette, is as strong as ever. So from an emotional standpoint, you're actually a little bit worse off because that knee jerk reaction is still there. So what I always recommend in these situations is if you're going to cut down gradually, make it at random times that you'll have those remaining cigarettes. if you're going down to eight a day, for instance, five a day, whatever. As you're gradually cutting down, smoke the cigarettes at random times. So you're still diminishing the nicotine on a schedule, which is great, but you're also forcing yourself to sometimes endure that stressful experience without automatically going for a cigarette. So you had to meet with your boss, but you couldn't smoke a cigarette after because instead you've spaced them out randomly or at different times. So remember, do not reserve those diminished cigarettes for the times that emotionally, you're keeping the addiction going. Okay? Random tidbit that wasn't necessarily directly related to the matter at hand. Now you're learning what it's like to have me as a professor! Let's move on to number four. Spend less. This can be extremely difficult, not only because it's lacking specificity and because it lacks a pathway, but because it's an avoidance goal rather than an approach goal, which is the same problem as “get out of debt” or “stop wasting money.” Focus on the action that you're going to do, not the one you're supposed to run screaming from. When we do this, it also has the benefit of being a little more positive rather than negative. And you might notice that a pathway of what to do is more of a pathway than a pathway of what not to do. Come up with a weekly dollar amount to sock away, or pay down toward a credit card, or name a specific item or service that you'll find a way to do more cheaply. You could automate a few dollars out of every paycheck to be diverted into a savings account, Or even just vow to switch some habit that will save you a couple of bucks a day. That's a great way to make the habit habit do the work for you, like switching to a slightly cheaper lunch. Then track your results weekly, if not daily. Make your original goal for only the month of January so as to not overwhelm yourself, and re-up the challenge every week. And there's another important thing to think about when you're thinking of cutting down on spending. Think about what you want to do instead of spending money. Otherwise, it's just a deprivation challenge, like me staring at dark chocolate and trying to not eat it now that that horrible study of lead and cadmium came out. What was up with that, by the way? Okay, I guess I don't want to get sued by Ghirardelli, but my point is, if you want to spend less, you have to actually find things to do rather than just what not to do. So come up with some fun things to take the place of spending money. Commit to more times at the library or in nature or going to free parks or museums. Make a “no spending Saturday”, something that you actually have a chance of enjoying, where you treat yourself in some creative way that doesn't take dollars, rather than just thinking of spending less as an opportunity for you to sit there and ruminate about what you're not spending money on and feel the heat of resentment and deprivation. Number five. This goal is “become organized.” So this obviously suffers from a lot of what we've already talked about vagueness lack of a pathway, lack of a definable behavior. But this also has that kind of extreme makeover vibe so many of us grandly pronounce, it sounds like we're aiming to become an entirely different person. “Become organized.” “Become a person who watches rugby.” “Develop an undying passion for wooden sold clogs.” I mean, you see how futile these things sound. There's just no use in creating a resolution that makes us try to be somebody else. Now, I'm not saying that you can't get organized or that it's not important to try, but we need to create that goal in such a way that it's specific enough that it doesn't feel like an entire condemnation of the people that we are right now. You can improve your organizational habits without necessarily becoming an extremely organized person, and that's okay. You can put into place a few systems that help and not be all or none about it. This also brings in the idea of what's realistic and what's not. We all need this. It's far better to meet a small goal than to feel like a failure that you didn't meet a big one. So streamline the goal itself and realize that if organization doesn't come naturally to you, you will be much better off starting small in ways that aren't about personality but are about action. Donate, recycle, or trash two items from my closet each night is far more likely to actually create change than “get the house under control.” Similarly, create a home for my crumpled junk mail, old takeout menus and sunglasses is much more bound for success than “go minimalist” or “get rid of my clutter.” Your goal never has to be about becoming anything you've already become. You're a person that has worth right here, right now, even if your entryway looks like it's been ransacked. You need not become organized to make the next year of your life a little smoother and easier by finally having a folder where you keep all your medical documents, for instance, or having a tray where you build a true daily habit of putting your keys there so that you get hours back of your life that you would have spent looking for them. Number six: be a better person. All right, now, I obviously believe in self improvement, or I wouldn't have written books in everything from retina-burning pink to cornea-burning yellow to finally my favorite, that soothing, decidedly non-eye-damaging blue of “Detox.” I do believe in trying to better ourselves. Of course I do. But as a goal, “become a better person”? It needs work. You know by now why, or at least mostly why. It's vague. It's not action oriented. It's judgmental. It's hard to quantify. But there's another twist here in that it lacks accountability of how to actually even know whether it's made a difference. Who will you recruit to assess your progress on this? The next eight people you meet on the subway? Instead, pick a particular behavior you can measure yourself. Or better yet, grab someone you trust to have accountability with this goal together. Volunteer in February at the Humane Society. Do a random act of kindness on the fifth day of every month. Do a gratitude meditation at least three times a week before bed. And I know you're going to take our gratitude episode to heart when doing that, right? Even something as simple as make eye contact and smile when I say thank you to the cashier at the grocery store, or wait a half second longer before beeping my horn when the light turns green. That something is way better than nothing. And if you were to keep just one of those up all year, that's pretty meaningful progress. And finally, number seven: “Improve my relationships.” The psychology of relationships. This is one of my favorite areas, and I am frequently going on about the health benefits of friendship to the point where it actually probably loses me friends. But the thing I want to highlight with this goal is that it could use a deeper connection to the why. Yes, it's hurting in other ways too, but you can pick those out by now. It's moralistic. It's not quantifiable. It lacks a pathway. It's unclear when you've met the goal. But also I want to use this example as an opportunity to tell you that you will meet your goals more successfully if you connect them to a value or deeper meaning or your sense of purpose. I know I'm always talking about this stuff, but it really does underlie our daily well being. So why do you want to be better at relationships? Is it because you've realized that they matter immensely to you in your life? Is it because you want to be a kinder person? Is it because you've been feeling lonely and you want to assuage that? Is it because you want to become less shy? Is it because you think that the world could use more empathy? And getting out of our echo chambers and engaging with each other is one of the only things that will solve our descent into this crumbling dystopian hellscape. Or, uh, maybe you just want to add some social skills that will give you a leg up professionally in your career. Any of these are fine reasons to, quote, “be better at relationships”. But the important thing is what matters to you. So build the goal off of that. Some folks might say: plan one activity per month that will help me feel closer to the people already in my life that I love, or nudge myself to start a conversation with a stranger at least once a month. (I know. Let the hate mail flow, folks. Small talk really can be good for us. I know everybody fights it, but we've got the data.) Maybe your goal says send out an actual birthday card rather than a happy birthday text to these three people this year. Or be mindful of listening a bit more actively in my conversations with my partner, rather than just talking at them or reacting to what they're saying, whatever it might be. Get specific and tie it into your values. So to sum up, your goal should be effort-focused rather than just focusing on the arriving at the goal. Your goal should be specific and concrete. They should include a very describable realistic pathway for how to get there. They should be about doing something rather than avoiding or NOT doing something. They should tie into your values, your values that really exist, not the ones that you want to build in your extreme personality makeover. Your goals should have accountability that you can measure and that you can reward yourself incrementally on so that you don't feel all or none about your progress. And your goal should all involve purchasing these incredibly mind-enhancing supplements that you can get on my website for the extremely low price….. Sorry. I'm kidding. Okay. Good luck on this goal-setting or good luck in saying, you know what? A new year doesn't mean much in terms of a goal. I can set goals anytime. Resolutions are bunk. That's okay, too. But write to me and tell me how you're thinking about goals or how you're not thinking about them these days. Thanks for joining me today. Once again, I'm Dr. Andrea Bonior, and this has been Baggage Check, with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Join us on Instagram @baggagecheckpodcast. Give us your take and opinions on topics and guests. And you know you've got that friend who listens to, like, 17 podcasts. We'd love it if you told them where to find us. Our original music is by Jordan Cooper, cover art by Daniel Merity, and my studio security, is Buster the Dog. Until next time, take good care.