Practice Makes Perfect: A New Way To Think About New Year’s Resolutions

New research suggests that the best way to keep resolutions is practice before you reach.

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By now you’ve doubtless heard or read more than a few stats about New Year’s Resolutions, in particular the surprisingly large number of people who make them  and the not-surprisingly, almost-as-large number of those folks who fail to keep them for longer than a few weeks or months. This discouraging fact holds true regardless of the kinds of self-improvements we undertake, whether they are health-related (three of the 10 most common resolutions) or financial in nature (the third most common type of New Year’s vow). But a recent study about dieting offers some new insights into a way we can permanently alter our behavior—and just maybe make this year’s resolutions stick.I’ve written previously about various ways we can “trick” ourselves into better resolution-keeping, including partnering-up, limiting our self-promises, removing small obstacles to success, anticipating our missteps and writing down our goals. All five can be of real value, but all essentially involve jumping into the deep end of the willpower pool. That’s how most people approach resolutions—or, for that matter, any behavior change. It turns out, though, that the best way to keep a resolution may be to practice the skills and thought-processes you’ll need to employ before you actually try. That’s the unavoidable conclusion of a study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, which showed that women who spent eight weeks practicing weight maintenance before starting their diets lost the same amount of weight as women who simply started dieting first.

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More importantly, though, the so-called “Maintenance First” dieters were far more successful at keeping their weight off over the course of year, gaining only three pounds on average vs. seven pounds for “Weight Loss First” dieters. “Those eight weeks were like a practice run,” lead author Michaela Kiernan at the Stanford Prevention Research Center said when the study came out. In particular, the study was designed so that half the participants learned a set of what the researchers call “stability skills,” a toolkit of habits and behaviors “designed to optimize individuals’ current satisfaction with lifestyle and self-regulatory habits while requiring the minimum effort and attention necessary.” These included climbing on the scale daily so they could experience the natural fluctuations of body weight (the better to deal with disappointment), searching out low-fat or low-calorie foods that taste as good as high-fat or high-calorie options; treating themselves every once in a while to small amounts of tasty high-fat or high-calorie foods; purposefully losing a few pounds before a vacation or major holiday to minimize their effects; and eating a little more when reaching the lower limit of the personalized 5-pound range.

In other words, rather than starting to diet immediately—which invariably requires a difficult combination of behavior changes, deprivations, focus and willpower—the Maintenance First dieters tackled all four challenges without the added burden of actually having to lose weight. They got good at the daily business of dieting before they tried to lose weight. That resulted in a greater ability down the line to keep their lost pounds from returning.

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It’s not hard to imagine this strategy working in many areas of self-improvement, from quitting smoking to increasing exercise, from spending more time with family to becoming more organized. By first identifying the thought processes and skills you’ll need to maintain your commitment, then “practicing” those before you begin the hard work of changing behavior, you might be better positioned to carry your resolutions through. This is especially relevant given a recent study, published in the December issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. The study, conducted by Claudia Townsend and Wendy Liu, demonstrated how people who plan to meet a given goal fare worse than those who don’t when the goal appears far away. In other words, when we look out and see a far-off horizon we tend to give up if we’ve invested a lot in planning. That’s what I call the “New Year’s Resolution Fail” in a nutshell. But we’re less likely to fail, we now know, if we understand how each step of the journey might be experienced before embarking.

The implications for financial resolutions quickly come into focus. Most financial resolutions are, at their core, some form of a promise to spend (or borrow) less, save more, or be more organized. Very often, though, we simply jump into the behavior we hope to make permanent without really understanding the best way to achieve that goal or maintain it. For example, spendthrifts often embark on a belt-tightening resolution that has them giving up some in-the-moment-minor-but-over-time-major expense (think: half-caff, mocha latte with extra cinnamon) that also robs them of a genuine daily happiness, one that might not be worth the foregone pleasure. Instead, were they to spend a few weeks simply tracking their  daily expenses and reviewing their annual outlays—without the need to take any action—they might discover  an underutilized gym membership or automatically renewed  subscription whose elimination would save them as much money without removing a valued small daily pleasure. Likewise, people who seek to curb impulse buying when they go to the grocery store might discover that their problem is not the lack of a shopping list, but rather that they do most of their shopping after work and before dinner, when they’re hungriest.

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The list goes on, but the central point is distinct: Rather than rushing to change unwanted behavior, it is far better to endeavor first to understand what goes into it and learn what will be required to maintain it over the long run.

Finally, one last tip for the hopeful resolver: Framing counts, especially when it comes to how you think about your New Year’s goals. A recent study by Vanessa M. Patrick of the University of Houston and BOston College’s Henrik Hagtvedt, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, suggest that using terms such as “I don’t” over “I can’t” when you talk (to yourself or to others) about a desired behavior will increase the likelihood that you’ll be able to stay the course. Why? Because saying or thinking “I don’t”  serves to empower you, to make the success of your resolution less a matter of willpower—which research suggests is limited for all of us—and more a function of choice, determination and practice, which can be turned into habit (the good kind).

This kind of linguistic nuance in what psychologists call “self-talk” might seem negligible, but  as Charles Duhigg explores in his excellent book, The Power of Habit, sometimes (if not often) the subtlest clues and signals can result in hugely consequential behaviors—trip wires, if you will, for the habits that affect our finances, careers, relationships and health. So as 2013 begins, there’s no reason not to set a few of those trip wires ourselves, with beneficial consequences rather than negative ones.