Resolutions for Change

Original photo

Original photo

Personal change is a popular topic this time of year as many individuals commit to New Year’s resolutions. As a reader of this website, you already know that successful attainment of self-improvement requires (1) setting a goal; (2) taking actions that lead you to your goal; and (3) monitoring your progress (allowing you to adjust your behavior as necessary).

We now know that there are a couple of “super-ingredients” that help you to boost your chances of success in your change efforts.

One super-ingredient is called an implementation intention (Gollwitzer, 1993, 1999). An implementation intention is a highly specific plan that you use to change your habits at high-risk times.

Here is the basic formula to use when you are building your implementation intention:

“If I [name the specific obstacle, such as a thought, emotion, or situation] and I am tempted to stray from my personal goal, then I will [choice of healthy behavior].”


If my waiter or waitress offers dessert and I am tempted to order it, then I will order a cup of coffee instead.

If I feel stressed and am tempted to eat an unplanned snack, then I will take a walk around the block before deciding whether and what to eat.

If I drive by my favorite store on the way home from work and I am tempted to stop in and spend money, then I will stop at my favorite park instead.

This technique is believed to work because it prompts you to identify the exact cues or triggers that lead to your unhealthy habits. This makes you more likely to notice your habitual behavior. It also makes you more likely to identify your “choice points,” which are the times when you have the freedom to depart from your automatic behavior and choose something healthy for yourself.

Another super-ingredient is called self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977, 1997). Self-efficacy is your belief in your ability to organize and execute the courses of action that are necessary to attain your goal.

In a recent study (Koestner and colleagues, 2006), participants were instructed to boost their sense of self-efficacy by doing three things:

(1)   They were asked to think about past situations in which they achieved a similar goal.

(2)   They were asked to think about situations in which an individual who is similar to them achieved a similar goal.

(3)   They were asked to think about a person who encouraged them to reach their goal.

In this study, participants who used the two magic ingredients (implementation intentions plus self-efficacy) reported significantly higher levels of progress toward their goals compared to individuals in a control group.

Just a few simple tasks, then, can help take you from choosing a resolution to actually carrying it out. Now you have the tools to make it a great new year!

I wish you all the best in 2014.

Welcome to the Stretch Zone

Photo by Bill Ebbesen; Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Bill Ebbesen; Wikimedia Commons

Whenever I begin a new personal change group at work, there is a long pause when group members consider which goal they would like to set for themselves.

Last week, one of the group participants gave voice to her hesitation: “It just seems like so much. Like it’s easier to not even start the change journey in the first place, because it’s so daunting.” The others nodded in agreement.

This was a sign that the group members had crossed over into the anxiety zone, where goal-directed efforts are paralyzed and it doesn’t even seem possible to try new habits.

The scenario is a great illustration of an old concept in psychology known as the Yerkes-Dodson law: As your arousal/anxiety level increases, task performance improves, but only to a point. Beyond that point, increases in arousal/anxiety lead to stress and a deterioration of task performance.

This concept was borrowed by an organization called Professional Thinking Partners and transformed into the three “zones of existence”: comfort, stretch, and stress (M.J. Ryan, 2006).

According to their model, when you are in the comfort zone, you are not challenging yourself enough to try a new approach, and your anxiety level remains low. When you are in the stress zone, you have moved too far outside your comfort zone, and the resulting anxiety will impede your performance.

Somewhere between comfort and stress is the “stretch” zone, where your new behavior will feel somewhat awkward and uncomfortable, but you won’t experience disabling emotions. New learning and true change occur in the stretch zone.

Think about your change efforts. Can you think of times that you have been either too comfortable or too stressed to advance toward an important goal? How do you know when you are in the stretch zone?

Make Your Change Goals Public

Photo by Johannes Jansson; Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Johannes Jansson; Wikimedia Commons


Be bold. Talk to other people (preferably supportive people) about your intention to change. There are many ways to enhance your sense of commitment to change, but one of the easiest and most effective ways is to make a public promise that you are working toward a goal.

Tell your friends and family what you plan to do. Write it on a big sheet of paper and tape it to the refrigerator. Take out an ad in a local newspaper and tell the world about the challenge you are undertaking.

This works because it makes your change effort an issue of integrity in your own eyes and in the eyes of others. We generally want to think of ourselves in a positive way, and we want others to think positively about us, as well. So if we say publicly that we plan to accomplish something, we will go to great lengths to maintain our integrity; that is, to be consistent with our stated values and expectations.

Making a goal public also helps us to garner social support from important others and to create a positive emotional climate in which to achieve our dreams. Consider the science of social bonding and the brain. Scientists who study the brain have discovered that the limbic system, which functions as the brain’s emotional center, is an open-loop system.

This means that rather than being a closed system that does not exchange information with anyone outside of itself, the limbic system can transmit signals that alter the emotions and physiology of another person. In addition, it regulates itself based on input from outside sources. Therefore, emotions are “contagious” whenever people are near one another, even if the contact is nonverbal.

It becomes important, then, for us to be around positive, inspiring people in order to generate a sense of possibility and to propel ourselves forward. There is a direct path from a positive emotional climate to positive outcomes.

What can you do to make your change goals public?

To Change a Habit, Get Specific

Photo by Elina Mark; Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Elina Mark; Wikimedia Commons

Researchers have long known that we are more likely to change a habit when we define a specific goal (like “eat more fruits and vegetables”) rather than a vague direction (“get healthier”).

Beyond that, researchers have now shown us that if we can attach specific and meaningful labels or images to the outcomes we wish to see, this will increase our motivation for change. For example, it is a lot more motivating to work toward the day when you can sit on the floor and play with your grandchildren, move around the tennis court more easily, or shop for a smaller pant size rather than a generic outcome (“be healthy”).

To consider how to apply this principle to your money habits, check out

How can you get as specific as possible about the healthy outcomes you’d like to see?