January 5, 2020

Nail any new year's resolution with scientific motivation tricks

Weight loss. Healthy eating. Working out. Learning to say 'no'. These tricks used by psychologists will make changing any habit a whole lot easier. (No stealth willpower required.) 

1. Find your 'why'

While discipline is often hailed as the crux of success, it is motivation - not pure grit - that drives us to action. Motivation is a psychological phenomenon that essentially predicts whether we’ll maintain behavioural changes long term or ‘fall off the wagon’ when the going gets tough or life gets busy or stressful. 

Before you embark on a ‘health kick’, ‘fad diet’ or abandon steak for a vegan menu, consider WHY you’re doing it. Is your motivation ‘intrinsic’ (say, wanting to have the energy to run around the park with the kids) or ‘extrinsic’ (such as feeling obligated to lose weight)? If you don’t genuinely want and believe you can achieve your goal, the resolve to forgo Kit Kats and work out when it’s still dark will disappear the moment a colleague offers you chocolate on deadline or it’s raining at 5am. 

This is why psychologists often use the technique of motivational interviewing to identify realistic steps towards change. They also often use the five-stage model, which includes a pre-contemplation stage and a readiness stage, to gauge readiness and identify preparatory work that needs to be done beforehand. Without intrinsic motivation, no amount of self-discipline or fridge reminders is going to work. So-called ‘failure’ often comes down to simply not having the right framework.  

2. Define success

To succeed, you need to manage your own expectations in the same way you would those of a business associate or client. This means judiciously defining ‘success’ with realistic conditions and parameters. For instance, the five-stages model expects that people will move back and forth between stages (think two steps forward, one step back). Of itself, stepping back to an earlier stage or ‘slipping up’ isn’t a problem. You have a few days off gym. You eat takeaway three days in a row. It only becomes a problem if you equate ‘slipping up’ with failure, think ‘I’ve blown it’ and return to old ways.

A more helpful way to consider ‘success’ is both realistic and self-compassionate. In fact, this is why many coaches, dietitians and other health professionals encourage moderation rather than abstinence (stop eating a family block a night, but have a chocolate biscuit three days a week after dinner and learn to eat it mindfully and truly savour it). This also guards against the sense of deprivation that can cause defiant binges and means that when you are imperfect - and as a human, it’s inevitable - you simply accept it and return to practising the new behaviours most of the time. 

3. Plan to succeed

The third critical piece of the new year’s resolution puzzle is planning. As the adage says, ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’. If you are genuinely motivated, planning flows naturally. Yet simple doesn’t mean easy, and incorrect goal-setting can bring the most determined resolver undone. The best goals follow the SMART model (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely). This turns something abstract into something tangible that you can ‘do’, rather than dream or procrastinate about doing because you don’t know where to start or it seems too overwhelming. The very essence of SMART goal setting is breaking the big picture into manageable ‘bits’ to maximise your chances of being able to achieve them, in turn fuelling confidence and motivation to keep going. 

4. Celebrate your wins, big and small

One of the most potent drivers of behaviour is reward. It’s easier to forgo daily lattes if you know you’ll be able to go on a holiday with the savings. While there are intrinsic rewards in well-motivated behaviour change, such as the sense of accomplishment and confidence that comes with achieving something difficult, extrinsic rewards can also help - especially when the reward of achieving the end goal is delayed. 

Such immediate rewards can come in different forms, from treating yourself with a massage to buying that new workout top (rewards that help motivate you to continue your new behaviour are extra powerful). If you’re saving ‘vending machine’ money for a vacation, consider placing the daily savings in a clear jar in your bedroom, so that the benefit of the sacrifice is visible. 

Rewards can also be social, such as affirmation and encouragement from friends, family and even social media followers. Select a team of 'cheerleaders' who will celebrate your wins along the way. 

The key to using rewards effectively, according to conditioning theory, is to firmly link their timing to your work and achievement. The moment you accomplish a 5km run, celebrate by posting a picture on social media (although be wary of relying on 'likes' as your primary source of validation). Phone a friend who will welcome your brag moment. Or go home and buy what you promised yourself. The behaviour will become associated with a hit of the brain’s reward neurotransmitter dopamine (which is what’s released when you imagine eating your favourite food), making it easier to keep moving towards your goal. 

If you're struggling with motivation or would like to learn to better harness the power of motivation to achieve your goals in work or career, health, sport or exercise or relationships, a Soaring Health psychologist can serve as a guide, coach and cheerleader to support you towards success. Contact our Thomastown or Craigieburn clinic to book a consultation or find out more.

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We honour the strength and resilience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and pay our respects to all Elders, past and present.
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