New Year’s resolutions: Use psychology to keep them

By: Ger Driesen
Learning Expert – aNewSpring

Many people make plans to change or improve something around the New Year and discover how hard it is to sustain that initiative. The hard part of resolutions is the fact that they are competing with your existing habits. Let’s bring in some hotshots like Dan Pink, David McClelland and Burrhus Frederic (B.F.) Skinner to help us win the struggle!

Step 1: Figure out what drives you

The first thing to figure out is what motivates you and how this is connected to your resolutions. In his great book ‘Drive’, Dan Pink helps us to find out more about what drives us. In the ‘Twitter summary’ of the book Pink says: ‘Carrots and sticks are so last century. For work in the 21st century we need to improve autonomy, mastery & purpose’. According to Dan, you have to ask yourself: What is the real background of my New Year’s resolutions and how does it fit with current level of autonomy, mastery or purpose?

Is it about growing your autonomy? Do you want to get better at anything to improve mastery? Or is your New Year’s resolution connected to some deeper meaning of life. What is the purpose? 

Figuring this out can be a great first step. But we need something else to improve ourselves.

Step 2: Figure out your main need

I’m a big fan of McClelland and his Theory of needs. He shows us three human needs:

  1. The need to achieve
  2. The need for affiliation
  3. The need for power. 

If you prefer the need to achieve, you like to work on tough challenges. When you play sports or games, you want to win. People in this bucket love to figure out smarter solutions. They prefer to work alone and love getting feedback often to know they are on track. They also love to celebrate achievements.  

Do you like to meet other people, work with them and get to know them better? Then you probably prefer the need for affiliation. People with this need like creating personal relationships and receive recognition from people around them.

If you prefer the need for power, you like to be influential and you like to lead. You don’t mind to lead by example.

Step 3: Apply your need to your resolutions

If you ‘know thyself’, try to apply it to your resolutions.

If you’re an achiever, make your resolution a game. Set up a goal, create milestones and only focus on your resolution. Find a person (or more than one) to give you feedback and who keeps you on track of your milestones. 

If you like affiliation, share your resolutions with your peers and ask for help and support. You can also team up with ‘resolution colleagues’ so you never walk alone.

If you are a power person, think about how you can delegate (parts of) your resolutions to help achieve them. Change the rules of the game if you must and get additional resources to make it happen.

This is why I like McClelland: he can give you very different clues on how to manage your resolution depending on your own personal style.

Step 4: Learn from pigeons and ping pong, use carrots and sticks

Although Dan Pink says the carrots and sticks approach is old fashioned,  it can still work. If B.F. Skinner is able to get pigeons to play ping-pong, the approach is worth looking into.

And yes, it is about carrots and sticks, about punishment and reward. To apply this to our New Year’s resolution we should try to create a system that punishes our old behaviour and rewards our new one.

The real art is to apply instant reward and punishment – the sooner the reward or punishment comes after the behaviour the better. Create a direct positive reward for the desired behaviour and take away, or delay, the direct positive rewards for the undesired behaviour.

Without realising it, you are already using ‘carrots’. It happens when you book a flight and you collect preferred flyer miles. And it happens at the register of the home-improvement store when you swipe your loyalty card.

You also already use ‘sticks’. Think about the swear jar to discourage everyone at home from swearing. Have kids who bite their finger nails? Then you might be using a nail biting polish to make the nail biting taste awful.

As a bonus, align the carrots and sticks with the Theory of Needs (step 2) to make it even more effective.

Go for success

Yes, you need some creativity to succeed and to make it all work. But don’t we learning & development professionals all love creating learning interventions that make us ‘better’?

Good luck with all your resolutions and ambition in 2017! 

PS – If this blog is helpful to making your 2017 goals please reward me by posting a comment below! For example, what will you be working on this year?

Need some extra dose of inspiration for 2017? Make learning inspiring and download the Blended Learning Cookbook.

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