The One Thing You Aren’t Doing That Will Keep You From Accomplishing Your New Year’s Resolution

Brandon Young, Ph.D., Insights Consultant & Organizational PsychologistEmployee EngagementLeave a Comment

With each turn of the new year come personal resolutions – manage finances better, eat healthier, be more active, etc. The beginning of a new year is a great temporal landmark to take stock of last year and set goals for the next one. Temporal landmarks are a quirk of human nature – I’ll start doing X on Monday or at the beginning of next quarter. It can be motivating to begin something new around a temporal landmark – they can help us close the door on things we want to change about our past behavior and get out of the weeds of daily minutia to look at the big picture in an attempt at a fresh start. This can leave us confident about our shiny, new and improved selves.

In addition to “social” temporal landmarks such as a new year, Mondays, beginnings of each month, and holidays, we often use personal temporal landmarks to start new plans – birthdays, anniversaries, job changes etc. All temporal landmarks are better starting points than random starting points because they already have a little extra significance, but something more personal such as you’re your birthday may be more powerful. Temporal landmarks can also help teams relegate slumps to the past and get back on track. A new quarter is a common temporal landmark within organizations, but you don’t have to wait until new quarter. Consider other meaningful organizational moments such as new product launch or marketing campaign.

Unfortunately, by mid-February about 80 percent of us have failed to stick to our resolutions. If you already missed a day at the gym or strayed from your new diet, hide the cookies, shake it off and start again on Monday. Motivation ebbs and flows, so you may need to set new temporal landmark to get back on track – just don’t wait until next January 1 to re-up. Our failures are often no surprise, so in addition to getting back on the wagon as soon as possible, why don’t we do something before we fall?

We often fail to exercise, get the right amount of sleep, get regular car maintenance and so on. We watch things pile up at work and know they may cause problems down the line, but “more urgent” matters get our attention. You know you have to act but you feel too scattered and paralyzed to do anything. Then we fail and (maybe) look back and say “how did that happen?” Unfortunately, post-mortem is the wrong time to think about the problem.

Turns out, a “pre-mortem” can help boost commitment to behavioral change and enhance your ability to follow through. How does it work? Start by imagining your intentions failed dramatically and then envision what went wrong along the way. Yikes! Once you’ve recovered from your imagined failure and the painful consequences of not satisfying your need, write down every reason you can conjure up for the failure – don’t be afraid to dig deep and wide. Depending on your comfort level, ask loving critics – people who know you well and have your best interest in mind but are willing to be honest, to come up with a list independently. After you have compiled an exhaustive list, prioritize the problems – think likelihood (e.g., it may be unlikely that a tiger eats you while exercising but it could be very likely that you end up staying up too late to wake up for your early morning workout), severity of the consequences (how far off track will this problem take me), and personal control over the problem. Make sure to exhaust all possibilities; only after you have a prioritized list should you start brainstorming solutions. There may be problems that have no current solution, but at least you will be aware of the potential obstacle and better prepared to cope and rebound. For instance, you may not be able to prevent all soreness after a workout but you can mentally prepare for it and reframe the temporary aches as indicators of your performance.

Resolutions typically fail for one of two reasons; they are either 1) ill-defined or 2) too hard. A premortem may help you identify flaws and strengthen your plan to prepare for and overcome the inevitable obstacles that can side-track your success. For example, perhaps your resolution is to lose weight. This resolution is likely too vague – how much weight, by when do you want to lose it, how are you going to lose weight? In your pre-mortem you might realize the imagined failure occurred because you were too focused on the scale but neglected the process – what will prevent me from eating healthier or exercising? January is cold in many parts of the country. Will I want to go out in the cold to exercise? Is there something I can do without leaving the house or is there a way to navigate the cold?

With regard to difficulty, perhaps your resolution is to run 5 miles per day starting on January 1. Unfortunately, you forgot to consult with reality – in your premortem you realize your failure occurred because haven’t run in 10 years and “forgot” your knees are bad. You may realize during your premortem that it is more realistic to focus on walking 30 minutes per day as you build your strength and stamina. You may then make a new temporal landmark – by this time next year, I will be able to run at least 5 miles per week.

One of my New Year’s resolution is to consistently meet our blog writing due dates. A premortem helped me realize when writing blogs I often direct too much energy and time toward researching and outlining ideas. I often go down rabbit holes chasing a host of interesting topics. There is a lot of motion, but not writing. While I take great joy in the learning and research process, I take less joy in writing. As such, I miss publication deadlines and my need to perform effectively is not satisfied. Consequently, it is difficult to allocate energy to the next blog. I realized I needed to find joy in the writing process by considering how my topics and words may be useful to others, and recognized I need to be more focused in my research and more intentional about writing something every day – the action that will most directly lead to meeting deadlines and satisfying my needs. 

If you’re not ready to do a premortem on yourself, try it with your team. The premortem may be just the right technique to avoid the “full speed ahead attitude” by those who are over-invested in the team’s goals. The process can help all team members feel their input and experience is valued and give everyone “Spidey senses.” Meaning the team may be able to more quickly sense and respond to problems in the future. For a successful premortem, do this with your team:

Change always involves some emotional friction. A premortem can keep the friction from starting a fire. Hopefully as you head into 2020, you do so with a clear roadmap of how to more effectively navigate your desired change and expected setbacks.