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.