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Resolution check-in with a Stanford psychologist, one week into the new year

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Ever make a New Year's resolution and, one week later, find that you've thrown it out the window? The experience is not uncommon. In a recent Stanford News interview, Stanford psychologist and "science-help" expert Kelly McGonigal, PhD, explains the psychology of resolution-making. Here's a chance to take a look back over the past week, reevaluate your resolution style, and start afresh.

To work, a resolution has to be both meaningful and achievable. The trick to McGonigal's approach is, essentially, to separate these goals. Think of a resolution that is significant, sweeping, and deeply connected with who you would like to be or how you see your ideal self; then, think of a tiny daily step that relates to that goal. McGonigal explains:

The best kind of resolution is one that has a "big why" – to create health, to reconnect with a personal passion, to strengthen an important relationship, to change your financial situation, to develop yourself in some way, or to contribute to others in some way. And then you pick a small action or change that reflects this big goal, to remind yourself of it and to help you take steps toward it.

If your "big why" is to become more healthy, for example, don't try to quit smoking or wake up an hour earlier every day to exercise. Try to wait an extra ten minutes before smoking your first cigarette, or dance to two songs in the kitchen after finishing the dishes. Such small, doable steps have been shown to have a big impact when connected with purposeful intention.

Thinking of resolutions as existing on different scales like this can help sustain the huge psychological boost that comes from resolving to change. This boost can easily be lost when people are confronted by how difficult change actually is, after which they give up - what psychologists call "false hope syndrome." To avoid this, it's useful to distinguish between resolutions that are expressions of a hopeful mindset, and resolutions that are plans for action. More from McGonigal:

Research shows that when people resolve to change, they immediately feel more confident, in control and hopeful. They even feel stronger and taller, which is kind of ridiculous, but this just shows how uplifting resolving to change can be. If people want to make resolutions as a way to connect to a growth mindset – the belief that through effort and support, you can change and grow in meaningful ways – that's fine. It's not necessarily a tragedy if you fall short...

The worst thing to do is make a promise to yourself that you don't really care about and don't really plan to see through.

Whether you think of your resolution to change as more of a mindset or more as something for which you want to be accountable, both the abstract and the concrete levels are essential.

McGonigal suggests a few tools for resolution success: recruiting a buddy to you can text when you've done your small daily goal, taking time for pre-resolution reflection through a gratitude list, or tricking your brain into thinking you've already succeeded by "encoding prospective memories." Best of luck in 2015!

Previously: How to keep New Year’s resolutions to eat healthy, Ask Stanford Med: Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal taking questions on willpower, Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal discusses how stress shapes us, and How to keep New Year’s resolutions to eat healthy
Photo by Sondem/Shutterstock

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