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Simple science can help you keep your New Year’s resolutions



Daniel Esparza - published on 12/21/17

This principle also applies to personal finances and helps you build a virtuous cycle.

It’s no surprise more than half of all New Year resolutions end in failure. The reason this is the case, far from being rocket science, is pretty straightforward: When thinking and planning for the coming year, most of us choose the wrong resolution.

The good news is, wrong resolutions are easy to identify. It’s often the case that we commit ourselves to changing something we really don’t want to change, or to do something we really don’t want to do, but we think we should commit to because it “seems right.” If you prefer Tai-Chi over running, don’t sign up for the next 10k race just because everyone else looks great in their jogging outfits.

But the real complications emerge, psychologists affirm, when we aim for ambiguous and non-realistic goals. Phrases like “I’ll lose weight next year,” “I’ll make more money,” “I’ll be more active,” “I’ll travel more,” “I’ll be more kind,” “I’ll pay my debts” are simply too vague to be measurable. And if they’re not measurable, there’s really no way we can set up any kind of plans for achieving them.

This is a cliché, but it works: Just as specialists in personal finances recommend that you not set goals that are too big to achieve (“I’m going to invest $1,00o a month on stocks this year!”), the same principle applies to almost everything else. This is what economists and psychologists commonly refer to as the “snowball effect.” Even if at first the goals you set might look insignificant (“I’m going to save an extra $50 a month”), the process builds upon itself, and it becomes larger and larger (“Whoa, saving those $50 was easy. I’ll aim for $100”).

It’s easy to see how the “snowball” works. A virtuous circle (just like a vicious one) implies the rolling of a snowball down a snow-covered hillside. You have seen this in cartoons a billion times. As it rolls downhill, the ball picks up more snow and momentum. By June, you find yourself already making your resolutions happen.

The key to get the (snow)ball rolling in the first place is simple: instead of only saying “I will be more kind,” set a specific goal: “I will be kinder to this person in particular, and will make sure to say one nice thing to that person on a daily basis.” Instead of saying “I will lose weight next year,” aim for “I’ll lose these many pounds in the next three months.” That’s more realistic, effective and, most importantly, frustration-free. Also, it works.

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