How to Make Effective New Year’s Resolutions (and generally do stuff differently)

So you want to change? Really? At this time of year many people have taken stock and decided they want to alter some aspect of their lives, setting goals and trying to establish effective New Year’s resolutions. Most of these people fail miserably and do not make the changes they would like for reasons that will become clear.

These lessons have come through experimentation with hundreds of clients and through learning the hard way myself. One of my work specialism is now how to get lasting behavioural change so here is the best of what I’ve found. This year I have made some major changes – I’ve utterly changed my diet and established regular gym workouts to transform my body, moved into my own place from living with others, made many sometimes painful relationship and business changes, got into the habit of seeing my niece regularly (who lives a way away), got divorced from aikido to marry cage-fighting, etc. I’ve also failed in some of my 2011 aims – my books remains half-written but I’m OK with this and am learning why. Stuff happens, things beyond our control changes and we all do the best we can. Here’s how to give yourself the best chance possible of change in 2012:

The Rhythm of Behavioural Change

Why if we all have stuff we want to do differently do we find it hard to change? Why do most gyms sell 90% of memberships in January but 90% of these people are not there in March? Why are there still smokers talking about quitting but not doing it? Why don’t diets work? It doesn’t make sense at first glance that people don’t make changes that are obviously good for them, but we as systems in wider systems, are “homeostatic” – we try and remain the same. Everything in the universe is constantly shifting but coal does not suddenly turn into diamonds without some energy. People too can often be the victims of our “bureaucracy of habit” which keeps us doing the same thing ad getting the same results even when we don’t like them. As in physics a certain activation energy – like the movement in striking a match – is needed to overcome this and start a new self-perpetuating process. Change has a rhythm which involves initial excitement usually overcoming established entropy (January when you in the gym for example), a dangerous period where excitement has diminished but resistance remains high and the old system reasserts itself (February when most people start to quit the gym) and a maintenance period where the new pattern become self sustaining and requires some but little effort (March when you are a regular…if you made it that far). Given this rhythm the time to get a personal trainer or gym buddy (support and reminder) is February not January. The good news is any pattern you can maintain for 90 days will likely continue.


Why New Years Resolutions Don’t Work – And 9 Principles to make them work

1. No Commitment

“Well you know I should really give up smoking…” “I kinda want to find a new job” “I guess my relationship could be better…” Shut up you’re wasting your time and mine! What will you commit to doing? By commit I mean in the same way you’re committed to keeping your balls/ovaries. Real, 100% heart-felt commitment that is resistant to outside interference (because there WILL be some). Commitment involves connecting what we really want to change to what matters most to us. Change is emotional more than logical. This is the most important principle as deep values drive what we do and commitment aligned with them provides the necessary motivation for new action.

What to Do: Know your real values and commit based on these, preferably in public. NB: Committing not to worry about a possible change and give it up is also a commitment that will save you beating yourself up.

Example: I realised the main motivators for getting in shape weren’t health but vanity and integrity and this clarity was motivating. I then announced on Facebook what I was doing.


2. No alignment

The reason we say one thing and end up doing something else is that we have competing commitments. We want to go to the gym but we also want to relax after work. We want to eat vegetables but we also want the pleasure of eating cakes! Etc. Another way of looking at this is that we have different parts of ourselves and these need to be given a voice and aligned. If a change threatens another need/commitment it must be addressed or you will self-sabotage. What are the pay-offs of not changing? Behavioural change within oneself is actually a committee process! As many of our “commitments” are unconscious, the first stage is to identify what they are and give them a “voice”. Voice dialogue/Big Mind is a great way to do this. We may also have limiting beliefs that need identifying and addressing before any real change can happen. Successful change is aligned, authentic and paradoxically, self-accepting. If change is driven by one part ourselves Calvinistically judging and bashing another part there will be a rebellion before long (February usually)!

What to Do: Identify and voice counter-commitments and other needs involved and find ways to bring them into harmony.

Example: When I started my business I had a part of myself that believed “making money is bad, good people aren’t rich and rich people aren’t good”. Simply identifying this was a big step that started to shift it, and I also made sure my business was aligned with my “inner-radical” , met my needs around fairness and was ethical in nature.


3. Not specific or positive

What very concretely are you going to do differently? A fuzzy commitment is no commitment at all. Let’s look at the two part of the first sentence in more detail: What specifically and measuredly (you have to be able to know if you’re done it or not), will you do differently (only commit to positive actions not the outcome or “don’ts” as the unconscious mind tends not to ignore the negative, so whenever you say “don’t eat the cake” your brain hears “eat the cake”). Break big things down into little doable things that don’t scare you (thanks to Paul Sheppard for reminding me of this one).

What to Do: be specific, be positive.

Example: “I will eat less junk”…to will drink semi-skimmed milk, eat fruit as a snack and meat and vegetables in the evenings”.


4. No vision

What can you picture? New possibilities begin in the mind. Until we can start to imagining things being different we won’t start to work towards it so visualisation, with as much detail as possible is a key start. It’s not magic of course and you still have to go do the work to meet your goals so visualise this too, not just the end result.

What to Do: Visualise in detail.

Example: I wanted to be in a healthy loving relationship so I started to imagine what this might look like as I really hadn’t pictured it before


5. No embodiment

What do you need to embody? We are not just psychological and for change to occour and stick we need to change at the level of who we are. This is perhaps the hardest one to explain in a short blog whoever the list of embodied resources here will be a start. What is critical is that we need to practice a different way of being.

What to Do: Practice and involve the body.

Example: Let’s say you’re working on being a better listener, what is the body of that? More open or closed? Faster or slower? When I made some shifts in this direction I realised I needed to be more aware of my back, more open, slower and have a more relaxed muscle tone. I’m still not a great listener but I’ve definitely improved and know what “the body” of this way of being is.


6. No reminders

How will you remember? This is a real simple one but easy to forget – people forget what they said they were going to do as life get’s busy again and habit reinforces itself so we need to have reminders to do stuff. Anything reliable that you won’t miss will do high or low tech. On the latter front there are some good online tools for both measuring, publicly declaring and reminding you of change efforts such as these.

What to Do: Add reliable intrusive reminders.

Example: When I started new exercise classes I put them in my diary and set-up reminders on my phone half an hour before.


7. Poor behavioural architecture

How can you make it easy for yourself? Think how hard it is not to drink alcohol if you work in a pub, you keep beer at home and you buy your food in a shop full of booze? How easy is it if you live in Saudi Arabia? While of course people do find ways to drink in “dry” countries, because it is a lot harder most people will drink less. Similarly, any change effort can be supported or hindered by how the things around you set-up the ease of particular decisions. Nudge is a great book on this.

What to Do: Set-up your life as much as possible to help you make the right choice the easy choice.

Example: Getting smaller plates and only keeping healthy food in the house when dieting. Joining a gym close to your work. (I did these in 2011)


8. No support

Who’s helping? Who’s hindering? Our network of relationships can keep our current behaviour in place or support change efforts. We may also need to change our network to a more supportive one – parole officers are very aware of this one! We are social animals and change is very difficult if tried alone. Good support is a mix of fluffy nice encouragement and kick-ass challenge and accountability (can be different people). We must also align any change efforts with cultural factors – to go back to the Saudi example British ex-pats continue to drink when living in Saudi Arabia because of their national cultural identity. If they wanted to give-up finding non-drinking British role-models would help.

What to Do: Get help! Join support networks. Involve important people in your life.

Example: Get a “gym buddy”. Hire a coach/trainer etc. Join clubs and groups like AA. When I moved sports to MMA I sat down with my then girlfriend and said, “honey I really want to do this, it will mean I’m later back most nights, can I have your support?” I also had to find ways that my own sub-cultural factors fitted with the “foreign” world of mixed martial arts, a culturally very different environment than aikido and find role-models I related to.


9. No consideration

What are you like? One size does not fit all and we all do change differently. What motivates us and how we like to learn and grow must be taken into account. Some people like a very goal orientated, measured approach, others a more flowing, organic or values driven way. Some are more private in their change efforts, some much more extroverted.

What to Do: Find out what works for you.

Example: I like to publicly declare change efforts, but I have a close friend who finds this undermines them and likes to keep her to herself. I have found in the past having a very definite plan worked for me, but am now finding more flexibility is more suited.


An Integral Model of Change

People tend to be good at looking at one or two of the areas I’ve identified but not all of them. To give yourself the best possible chance of behavioural change you should consider both the internal and external, plural and singular to use Ken Wilber’s classic model. You may find the best leverage where you are not used to working.


Inner psychological change, alignment and values work



Embodied and behavioural change



Cultural alignment and social support


Behavioural architecture and resources for change


Effective New Year’s Resolutions Conclusion

The principles and integral approach above will really help any resolutions you’re making this year. Behavioural change is also still a mystery in some ways, human beings are complex and hard to predict so experiment and enjoy



PEESMART – The behavioural change system I use at work

Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work – an older smaller article on this I wrote

A Buddhist angle on resolutions

A trainer friend on values and resolutions

Online goal tools

Behavioural change coaching is of course available – contact me on for support or try Paul Shepard, Dawn Bentley or Francis Briers if you don’t like me 🙂