Don’t Make Resolutions You Can’t Keep
Your microresolution must be a pledge you are sure you have the power to keep—a no excuses resolution. To be absolutely achievable, it must be limited. Resolutions to walk everywhere all the time or never eat sweets again or give up online shopping don’t qualify. Put aside that familiar temptation to try to fix everything all at once by tomorrow and focus instead on making a resolution that is so reasonable you are sure you can make it stick. Your microresolution should target a limited behavioral change that is reasonable enough that you can force yourself to keep it—don’t overreach.
Rule 1: A Microresolution Is Easy
Let’s take a common resolution, to get in shape, and define a fitness micro that is limited, achievable, and impactful—easy. Let’s say you’d like to increase your fitness by walking to work once a week. Your resolution could be to walk the entire way (thirty minutes), to get off the bus or train two stops sooner (fifteen minutes), or to park farther away (ten minutes)—whatever your circumstances, just start with the resolution you are sure you can keep. If you’re sedentary and your settled routine is to ride to work, suddenly resolving to walk every day wouldn’t be reasonable. Once you begin your walking resolution, you’re going to discover internal and external obstacles that you must resolve to make it work. Overcommitting at the outset to walk all five days just multiplies the obstacles you’ll need to overcome each week in order to succeed.
The weather, your mood, your energy level, additional clothing demands, the growing boredom of your route, and the pressure of your schedule will present themselves as reasons for not following through on your five-day pledge. You’ll begin to bargain with yourself over the scope of your commitment, renegotiating your resolution on a daily basis. Maybe walking five days is too much; how about three days? Maybe you weren’t able to walk today, but how about tomorrow? If tomorrow is as good as today, why not the day after tomorrow? If any day is as good as today, pretty soon you will find yourself at the weekend wondering how it was that you didn’t manage to walk a single day.
The benefits of sticking with your microresolution will be anything but limited. Small changes bring big benefits. If you keep your resolution to walk to work once a week, you’ll be fitter, arrive with a clearer head, rev your metabolism for the day, burn some calories, refresh your perspective with the change of seasons, and maybe find you enjoy it so much that you become an avid walker. You’ll experience the satisfaction and empowerment that come from targeting an action, following through, and building a positive new habit.
Rule 2: A Microresolution Is an Explicit and Measurable Action
Your microresolution must be explicit, so there’s no guessing about what to do, when to do it, or how to carry it out. Resolutions such as I will exercise more or I will snack less are worthless. Exercise more than what? Snack less than what? Resolving not to be defensive when you get feedback at work? You’ll need to think about the specific circumstances under which you become defensive, the form your defensiveness takes, and what explicit message you can send yourself that will stop you from justifying yourself with your first breath. Pledging to do something twice a week? Which days? What time? Is online shopping eating up your time and your wallet? Take a look at how your present behavior leads you into unwanted purchases and zero in on a specific change in habit that could save you money, such as establishing a “no shopping” period during the hours you’re most vulnerable to mindless browsing and impulse buying because your self-control has already been depleted by a day of initiative, decision making, and exercise of willpower.
The more explicit your resolution, the easier it will be to measure success, identify obstacles, and fine-tune your commitment for greater effectiveness. For example, if you resolve to handle personal administrative work once a week without specifying the day, you won’t be able to measure your success until the week has ended, and all week long your undone resolution will loom over you, portending failure. And if you do fail to make time for your session, it will be difficult to see exactly what went wrong, since any day might have been the day. If your resolution requires a schedule, don’t keep yourself guessing, Will I or won’t I today? Settle on a day and time and stick to it. It’s not until you get specific about when that you can get a handle on your own resistance to change or observe other obstacles that need to be addressed.
Rule 3: A Microresolution Pays Off Up Front
microresolution to make the bed each morning before breakfast achieves its goal and delivers its benefit as soon and as long as the resolution is kept. By contrast, a resolution to keep the house neat all the time—made by a person who leaves dishes in the sink, lets surfaces pile up, and has overflowing laundry, a messy desk, and a bed that never gets made—has very little chance of succeeding, as neatness is a function of numerous habits and a mindset that can’t be realized instantaneously. So the benefits of keep the house neat are projected into the future, to the someday when keep the house neat is finally achieved. But a microresolution to make the bed each morning before breakfast is achievable today and its benefit immediate—a made bed, a neater room, a more relaxing bedtime, perhaps a better sleep. The pristine bed may inspire more general tidiness in the bedroom, but the microresolution’s exclusive target is the bed.
A microresolution to give up saying “I told you so” benefits your relationship the very first time you stop yourself from saying it, unlike the generalized resolution to get along better with my partner, where the strategy is unfixed and the measurement of success subjective. In trying to get along better with my partner, there may be better and worse days, but there won’t be any way to relate the ups and downs to any specific change in behavior. However, if you know that saying “I told you so” to your partner creates friction, then it follows that when you stop saying it in all its forms, that friction will vanish. It won’t mean that all your relationship issues are solved, but it will mean that you’re refraining from scoring points at your partner’s expense, and that, all on its own, has real value. Likewise, if you pledge to end your biweekly one-on-one meeting with your boss by asking for feedback, you’ll instantly give your superior a more favorable impression of your maturity and professionalism, build trust, encourage dialogue, and give yourself a chance to benefit from your superior’s perspective.
Rule 4: A Microresolution Is Personal
to be effective, a microresolution must be designed by you, for you, based on observation of your own habits, attitudes, and situation. What personal behavior might you adopt, change, or eliminate to advance your objective? Thoughtfully analyze your habits to determine the single change that will have the biggest impact in your particular circumstances.
For example, at the New Year many will resolve to be on time for work, but solving late arrival will vary by individual. To design a resolution that gets you to work on time, examine the entire series of actions you take before you leave the house. Missing a train or bus by a second can mean a delay of fifteen minutes; driving into traffic five minutes behind schedule can mean arriving thirty minutes late (as anyone who commutes into Atlanta on I-285 can tell you). Oh, a minute is a lifetime in the morning! Every action counts, and time is wasted looking for keys, hunting for lunchbox items, finding a shoe, locating papers, counting out fare money, and dawdling over dressing decisions. Is your transit pass paid up? Do you need to get gas? Do you sometimes need to stop at the ATM on the way to work? If you are responsible for others in the morning, the opportunities to lose time multiply. Are you only just realizing that today is picture day at your kid’s school? Wasn’t there at least one more can of cat food yesterday?
Rule 5: A Microresolution Resonates
your resolution is a straightforward action cued by the clock or calendar, the most direct framing is the best—there’s probably not much point in tinkering with I resolve to walk to work on Monday mornings. But resolutions with frequent and fluid cues can often be made more effective through a thoughtful and resonant framing. Consider a resolution
I resolve to chew my food slowly. [Yuck.]
I resolve to dine leisurely and savor my food and drink. [Yum.]
Which of these two resolutions would you rather sign up for? The reframed resolution permanently transformed my eating mindset by focusing my dieting strategy on behaviors that foster enjoyment and celebration of mealtime. The new frame replaced a tacit admonishment (Don’t eat so fast) with an affirmation (Dining is a pleasure). Instead of dutifully chewing my food to a slower metronomic setting, I came to the table anticipating the pleasure of giving every morsel luxurious attention. My resolution to savor taught me that it was critical to register and enjoy the act of eating, especially when trying to eat less. Thanks to this reframing I realized that
mindful eating = greater satisfaction = less food consumption
Rule 6: A Microresolution Fires on Cue
Cues are personal—two people who each snack at the same time every afternoon may be responding to entirely different cues. The cue for one person may be a hunger pang; for another, it’s passing the vending machine on the way out of the gym locker room. The first time you make a purchase from the vending machine, you may feel real hunger, but if you repeat the pattern of gym plus vending-machine purchase enough times, soon the mere sight of the machine will prompt you to make a purchase. Behavioral research demonstrates that it is the strong association between behavior and cue that creates a lasting habit. Linking the action of your microresolution to a cue is critical to making your new behavior automatic. Cues are discovered, not invented—the cue for your resolution already exists, you just need to identify it. It may be internal (hunger, drowsiness, an impulse to scold) or environmental (the smell of freshly fried doughnuts, a shoe display in a shop window, criticism received from a coworker).
An essential part of framing your resolution is identifying the cue best suited to trigger the action you’ve committed to perform. If your resolution is tied to the clock or calendar, the cue will be fairly obvious. Returning to our old favorite, Walk to work on Monday mornings, if you’re walking from home to work, the cue is leaving the house on Monday morning; if you’ve resolved to walk from a certain bus stop, the cue to begin walking is when the bus pulls up at the designated stop. If you make the fitness resolution to climb six flights of stairs every workday after lunch, then getting up from the lunch table is your cue to head for the stairwell.
Rule 7: Make Microresolutions Just Two at a Time
Two celebrated behavioral researchers once famously summarized the foundation of their science thus:
Most of the time what we do is what we do most of the time. Sometimes we do something new.
Doing something new, something differently, demands rigor. Your microresolution is easy only in the sense that it is clearly achievable, but establishing any new behavior requires rigor. You must be in a position to demand of yourself that you follow through on your commitment, and that won’t be possible if you overreach. Building a positive new behavior requires attention and self-control, both limited resources. If you try to change too much too fast, you’ll be overwhelmed, lose your concentration, fumble cues, and end up with only patchy compliance. A habit isn’t a habit until it’s a habit—you have to go after it with single-minded purpose until you get it into autopilot. To guarantee unwavering focus and success, make your resolutions no more than two at a time.