Making and Keeping Your Resolutions for 2022

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Most of us make New Year’s Resolutions as a way of setting goals for the coming year and creating new habits and breaking bad ones. COVID-19 will disrupt that common practice for many.

Consider making them less ambitious and more short-term for 2022. Less is more and being humble can be the driving thoughts for you.

Later in this article I’ll address the ongoing problem of why people can’t keep their resolutions and what to do about it.

Surprisingly, people world-wide are optimistic about 2022 despite the resurgence of COVID.

Ipsos asked over 22,000 adults in 33 countries to give their personal predictions for 2022. Although concerns persist about rising prices and the environment, most people felt things would be better in the New Year.

“Hope springs eternal,” said Antonia Lopez from Ipsos. “As is normal, three quarters (77%) expect a better year in 2022, ranging from 54% of Japanese saying they are optimistic that 2022 will be a better year for them than it was in 2021 to 94% of Chinese.”

As 2021 draws to a close, more than one in four Americans (26%) or more than 67 million adults say that next year, improving their mental health is on their minds, and just over one-third (37%) say they are anxious about their mental health to start the new year. Among those making resolutions focused on mental health, 53% will meditate, 37% plan to see a therapist, 35% will take a break from social media, 32% will journal, 26% will use a mental health app, and 20% plan to specifically see a psychiatrist.

The findings are from The American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Healthy Minds Monthly* a poll conducted by Morning Consult. The New Year’s poll was fielded Dec. 6–8, 2021, among a nationally representative sample of 2,119 adults.

Among the poll’s other highlights:

“It can’t be said enough that there is no health without mental health, and it sounds like a lot of us will be starting the new year with that focus in mind,” said APA CEO and Medical Director Saul Levin, M.D., M.P.A. “That said, 2022 will bring challenges and with the emergence of Omicron just beginning, people are already anxious, and it is important to take steps to manage mental health and cope with the uncertainty we face.”

World Vision Australia spokesperson Noddy Sharma said it was clear the pandemic was continuing to reshape people’s priorities as we focus more on what matters in life.

“The pandemic has been extremely tough for everyone, but this research reiterates that it has encouraged Australians to pause and think about what we most want out of life,” he said. “A coffee with a friend, time with family — we often took these moments for granted in the past. But the pandemic has revealed just how precious they are. The research also supports what we are hearing anecdotally about people reassessing their careers, job satisfaction and work life balance that is fuelling the so-called ‘Great Resignation’.”

Noddy said his hope for 2022 was for an outpouring of compassion and unity to address urgent needs in countries hit hard by COVID-19.

Two resolutions that can take pre-eminence over all others is for all of us to take steps to protect and maintain our good health and support the governments and public health institutions that are working hard to protect us from the ravages of virus pandemics.

Suggestions for Making Resolutions for 2022 if You Want to Make Them

The start of the New Year is often the perfect time to turn a new page in your life, which is why so many people make New Year’s resolutions. But why do so many people have a hard time keeping their resolutions?

Researchers have looked at success rates of peoples’ resolutions: The first two weeks usually go along beautifully, but by February people are backsliding. And by the following December most people are back where they started — often even further behind. According to U.S. News & World Report, 80 % of New Year’s resolutions fail by February. A 2007 study by Richard Wiseman from the University of Bristol involving 3,000 people showed that 88% of those who set New Year resolutions fail, despite the fact that 52% of the study’s participants were confident of success at the beginning.The University of Scranton’s research suggests that just 8% of people achieve their New Year’s goals which means 92% of resolutions fail.

Image: University of Scranton

Why Do People Make Resolutions?

A New Year’s resolution is a tradition, most common in the Western Hemisphere but also found in the Eastern Hemisphere, in which a person resolves to change an undesired trait or behavior, to accomplish a personal goal or otherwise improve their life.

4000 years ago, the Babylonians made promises to their gods at the start of each year that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts. The Romans began each year by making promises to the god Janus, for whom the month of January is named. In the Medieval era, the knights took the “peacock vow” at the end of the Christmas season each year to re-affirm their commitment to chivalry. At watchnight services, many Christians prepare for the year ahead by praying and making these resolutions.

This tradition has many other religious parallels. During Judaism’s New Year, Rosh Hashanah, through the High Holidays and culminating in Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), one is to reflect upon one’s wrongdoings over the year and both seek and offer forgiveness. People can act similarly during the Christian liturgical season of Lent, although the motive behind this holiday is more of sacrifice than of responsibility. In fact, the Methodist practice of New Year’s resolutions came, in part, from the Lenten sacrifices. The concept, regardless of creed, is to reflect upon self-improvement annually.

What Do People Make Resolutions About?

According to researcher John Norcross and his colleagues, who published their findings in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, approximately 50% of the population makes resolutions each year, primarily focused on weight loss, exercise, smoking, money management, and debt reduction. According to a ComRes poll, the most common New Year’s resolutions, in order of popularity, include:

Undoubtedly, if the poll were taken again, I would anticipate resolutions related to staying healthy and being close to family and friends might jump to the top of the list.

Why Do People Fail to Keep Their Resolutions?

What to Do Instead of Setting Goals for Your Resolutions

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Forget about setting goals as a way to make resolutions work. In my article, “How Goal Setting Can Do More Harm Than Good,” I cite research that shows how goal setting can actually interfere with the attainment of what you want. L.A. King and C.M. Burton in an article entitled, The Hazards of Goal Pursuit, for the American Psychological Association, argue that goals should be used only in the narrowest of circumstances: “The optimally striving individual ought to endeavor to achieve and approach goals that only slightly implicate the self; that are only moderately important, fairly easy, and moderately abstract; that do not conflict with each other, and that concern the accomplishment of something other than financial gain.”

Adam Galinsky, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and one of the authors of a Harvard Business School report called Goals Gone Wild,” argues that “goal setting has been treated like an over-the-counter medication when it should really be treated with more care, as a prescription-strength mediation.” He argues that goal setting can focus attention too much or on the wrong things and can lead people to participate in extreme behaviors to achieve the goals.The authors of Goals Gone Wild, have identified several specific negative side effects associated with goal setting: “An overly narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas; a rise in unethical behavior; distorted risk preferences; corrosion of organizational culture; and reduced intrinsic motivation.”

Maurice Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania and Lisa Ordonez of the University of Arizona, co-authors of Goals Gone Wild,have studied the psychology of goal attainment, and in several experiments have shown that when people self-report their achievement of goals, if they are not entirely successful, a significant percentage of them lie to make up the difference.

One inherent problem with goal setting is related to how the brain works. Recent neuroscience research shows the brain works in a protective way, resistant to change. Therefore, any goals that require substantial behavioral change, or thinking-pattern change, will automatically be resisted. The brain is wired to seek rewards and avoid pain or discomfort, including fear. When fear of failure creeps into the mind of the goal setter, it becomes a “demotivator,” with a desire to return to known, comfortable behavior and thought patterns.

Focus instead on developing good habits and systems.Unlike goals, which can interfere with the attainment of regular long term behavior, the development of habits and systems to support them, can result in long term gains and behavior change.A habit is a fixed way of thinking, willing or feeling acquired through previous experience repeated over an extended time and usually occurs unconsciously. Habits can be compulsory–such as biting your fingernails–and they become bad habits.

Old habits are hard to break because the behavioral patterns we repeat become imprinted in our brains’ neural pathways. New habits, which can become good habits are sometimes hard to form because we haven’t repeated them enough to become more automatic and imprinted in our memories. Serious bad habits can become addictive and pose a mental health problem to the point where the individual has no control over the habitual behavior. Habits become more ingrained with age because repetition reinforces the habits over time.Your brain is fundamentally lazy. When it can, the brain wires thoughts, emotions, or behaviors into circuits deep below the surface where they become automated During theday, hundreds of habits — automated chunks of thought, emotion, or behavior — come online and offline, usually with little conscious awareness. Some habits you might think of as good, such as washing your hands after you visit the bathroom, brushing your teeth, or meditating daily. Others you may consider bad, such as negative self-talk or snacking on junk food. But most of your habits are neutral. For example, by habit, you steer along the same roads to work, position yourself in the same spot in a gym class, fill your shopping cart with the same food at the same supermarket, and tune your ears into the same music.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, makes the following arguments about habits and systems as the key to making changes (and thereby keeping your resolutions):

Scott Adams, author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, argues we need to develop systems in our lives to achieve goals.According to Adams, “A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run”. Specifically, a system comprises a habit, or a string of habits, that effortlessly nudges you toward a desired outcome. Examples:

Systems are effective because they conserve self-control. When you systematize a behavior by doing them consistently (counting calories, flossing, writing…), they become a habit. Once it becomes a habit, you don’t need to “will” yourself to do it. You simply do it. And the self-control you conserved can be reserved for overcoming obstacles and resisting anything that might derail your progress. Let’s look in detail at how to build a system.

Develop “Keystone Habits.”In Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, he discusses the idea of keystone habits. We have habits everywhere in our lives, but certain routines — keystone habits — lead to a cascade of other actions because of them. In his book, Charles Duhigg talks about Keystone Habits. “Keystone Habits” are small steps or habits that have the power to start a chain reaction in to other areas of our lives or businesses. Duhigg argues keystone habits “… can influence how people work, eat, live, spend and communicate” and that success “… doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers.” “The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.”

Two keystone habits Duhigg refers to in his book are exercise and food journaling in relation to exercise: When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why. But for many people exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change. “Exercise spills over,” said James Prochaska, a University of Rhode Island researcher. “There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.”

Duhigg refers to the study by Kaiser Permanente of nearly 1700 people. The study found that keeping a food diary can double a person’s weight loss. Keith Bachman, MD, a Weight Management Initiative member from Kaiser Permanente says — Keeping a food diary doesn’t have to be a formal thing. Just the act of scribbling down what you eat on a Post- It note, sending yourself e-mails tallying each meal, or sending yourself a text message will suffice. It’s the process of reflecting on what you eat that helps us become aware of our habits, and hopefully change our behavior.”

Make the habit easy. .A recent study showed that people who traveled 8km to the gym went once a month, whereas people who traveled 6km went five or more times a month. “That 2km makes the difference between having a good exercise habit and not. That is how our habitual mind works — it has to be easy,” says Wood.

Focus on one habit at a time, not multiple ones.The general consensus among behavior change researchers is that you should focus on changing a very small number of habits at the same time. The highest number you’ll find is changing three habits at once and that suggestion comes from BJ Fogg at Stanford University. Let’s be clear: Dr. Fogg is talking about incredibly tiny habits. “Lose weight” is not specific. Losing 10 pounds in 90 days would be.

Don’t think of it as a New Year resolution, says Charles Duhigg, think of it as a new year plan. “Much more important than setting a far off goal, like running a marathon, is to set an immediate plan that you can start right away.” Start with baby steps — running half a mile every Monday morning, for example — and you can work upwards. Whether you are making a new habit from scratch or changing an old habit, decide on the cue and the reward. The cue could be a time, a place or a feeling, while the reward must be instantaneous, explains Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California: “Don’t buy a new pair of shoes at the end of the week — that works for our conscious mind, which is not the neuromechanism behind habits. The reward needs to be immediate, something that makes the behavior fun.”

Take small steps.Many people quit because a goal is too big and the steps required are to much of a stretch and therefore requires too much effort and action all at once. You can get immediate rewards from very small steps.

Celebrate success between milestones — don’t wait for the goal to be finally completed.Remember, to remain motivated, you need to get a shot of dopamine frequently and regularly as a way of sustaining repetition of the habit. Every time you practice the habit successfully or even partially successfully, you should design and implement some kind of reward for yourself.

Set a Reminder for Your New Habit. Relying on your memory to practice the new habit is not sufficient.A reminder is a critical part of forming new habits. A good reminder does not rely on motivation and it doesn’t require you to remember to do your new habit. Setting up a visible reminder and linking your new habit with a current behavior made it much easier to change. Some examples: Text message reminders encouraged saving, reduced smoking and increased voting. What’s the bestway to use reminders? Have a checklist.

Minimize Decision-making. Decision fatigue can interfere with good habit formation. One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that participants demonstrated reduced self-control — less physical stamina, reduced persistence in the face of failure and more procrastination — after making several decisions about what types of goods to buy.Streamline your routine and narrow your choices — in as many aspects of your life as possible — will save you the mental energy you’ll need for the acquiring that good habit or eliminating that bad one.

Track your habits. Keep track of how much you’re actually whatever your habit may be. Either in a little notebook, calendar or in the notes of your phone, write down every time you complete or practice the new habit. Also make note of the times you skipped or missed the habit.

Change your environment. Putting yourself in an environment that distances you from your bad habit is critical. If you’re a stress-eater, keep junk food out of your cabinets. If you’re trying to quit smoking cigarettes, walk away when a friend lights one up. It’s straightforward — our environments affect our cravings, but we have control of the environments we establish for ourselves or those we choose to put ourselves in says Art Markman, author of Smart Change: Five Tools to Create Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others.

Have an accountability buddy, someone close to you to whom you have to report your progress. Track your efforts and make public declarations about your new habit. According to the lessons learned from the Hawthorne effect, you’re more likely to follow through with a commitment when you’re being observed by others. To stick with this new routine, you should let others know about your efforts and goals. Post updates on social media accounts, use apps like Chains and to track your progress, work with an accountability partner, or post regular updates to an online community related to the habit. Do whatever it takes to get reinforce ent from others in support of your new routine. Never underestimate the power of social approval. Simply knowingyou will be held accountable for your habit keeps you focused and consistent. “People who monitor behaviour tend to do a better job, even if they’re not actively trying to change,” says Gretchen Rubin, the author of Better than Before.

Be mindfully present. Become physically, emotionally, and mentally aware of your inner state as each external event happens, moment-by-moment, rather than living in the past or future. Stay in the present moment when you are engaged in your habit and don’t think about past performance, or what will come in the future.

Accept that you won’t be perfect and show self-compassion.In order to adopt better habits, you don’t have to make zero mistakes. In fact, you will do better if you expect them as part of the process. Perfectionism can be serious impediment to achieving your goals and developing good habits, and can contribute to declining or poor performance and demotivation. Dr Jessamy Hibberd, a clinical psychologist, says “the biggest obstacle to new habits is self-criticism. Study after study shows that self-criticism is correlated with less motivation and worse self-control, in contrast with being kind or supportive to yourself, as you would to a friend — especially when confronted with failure.”

Use implementation intentions to solidify your plan. Chris Armitage, professor of health psychology at the University of Manchester, explains: “This is a technique that is specifically structured to take advantage of the ways in which habits are formed to change behavior. The structure is ‘if-then’.” Say your resolution is to run half a mile on Monday mornings. Your implementation intention could be: “If it’s Sunday night, then I will set my alarm 30 minutes earlier, so that I have time to run.” Identify the situations related to your cue to find your “ifs” and link them with appropriate responses to make your “thens”. In a recent study by Armitage, 15% of smokers who formed implementations quit, compared with 2% of those who did not.

Do it in the morning. One study found that simple habits form more quickly in the morning than in the evening. Researchers believe this may be to do with levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which tend to be highest when we wake up. The author of the study, Marion Fournier, a lecturer at the Université Nice Sophia Antipolis, explains: “Cortisol elevation changes the mechanisms in our brain — it blocks the prefrontal cortex, meaning behavior becomes habitual.”

So in summary, drop your resolutions, and replace them with a good habit system, one that has a greater chance of success. And during this pandemic period, make the goals, if you set them, small and short term.

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Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others