If New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work, What Does?

It’s that time of year. Redemption time.  An annual tradition when we collectively make commitments to eat less, move more, or in some manner behave better.

Yom Kippur for everyone. Now granted, I can lean toward skepticism–however after a few cycles around the sun, it seems simply prudent to realize that these commitments to change have a very low value proposition.  So when January classes at my yoga studio get stuffed to capacity, I try to breathe a little more deeply through my downward dogs, grounding myself in the awareness that in February things will return to normal.

Skepticism aside–the data do speak for itself. Lenny Bernstein, in The Washington Post, cites this study:

“A 1989 study by John C. Norcross of the University of Scranton shows that 77 percent of resolvers had been able to keep their commitments “continuously for one week,” and follow-up research by Norcross in 2002 put the figure at 71 percent for one and two weeks. That means that about 25 percent of us don’t stick with it for seven measly days.”

Change is a funny thing. Not funny ha-ha, but funny complex– a curious nut to crack. As an executive coach, I’m always thinking about what is most conducive to igniting and supporting real change; change that enables leaders to do as they intend, and to help their organizations grow and evolve.

And if New Year’s resolutions don’t cut it, what does?

We need to understand the mechanics of change. By understanding the structure of change, we grow our capacity to observe rather than react. We can put our attention on where we want to go, how we get thwarted. This knowledge is powerful because it takes both the mystery and the blame out of the change process and provides insight into the purpose and function of our behavior.  What we have insight into, we can impact.

To understand the structure of change, we must understand that as human beings, we are continually pulled between two very distinct and often opposing forces: the survival instinct to protect and defend what is known and familiar and the survival requirement to learn, adapt and evolve.  Very often when we struggle to change an unwanted behavior, it’s because of our habitual, protective instincts.  This is natural. Our system is doing what it was set up to do: Maintain itself. No amount of willpower can trump this very basic instinct.

The problem is we are usually not aware of the strength and prevalence of these protective behaviors. Our sophisticated and nuanced ways of protecting ourselves slide under the radar of our self-awareness. Homeostasis is a beast.

How does this understanding help us make change in our organizations, or in our own leadership behavior?

  • Throw a bone to your instincts to protect.


Don’t fight this. Understand it’s natural. So rather than commit to a climbing Everest, identify the smallest step in the direction of Everest, the one with the least amount of resistance. Commit to that small step.

  • Under commit and Underachieve.

You want to guarantee success. The first failure that you encounter can seriously derail you. Remember those statistics? Almost 75% of us are doomed to fail in 1-2 weeks. So, rather than fail, guarantee success by setting the bar so low in the beginning it’s impossible not to succeed. And only when you have mastered that small step, add one more, tiny one.

  • Don’t remodel the whole house at once.

It’s easy to focus on the 25 behaviors you either hate or want to cultivate: exercise, diet, answer emails, be on time, etc. Instead, identify the one most important behavior that is a lever for all the others. The behaviors at the surface are symptoms of a larger one. So, identify the one single behavior that is most important, has the greatest bang for your buck, and the greatest likelihood of influencing other behaviors positively.

  • Join with others!

Research overwhelmingly shows that your social network has an outsized influence on your behavior and habits. So, check out whether your friends and colleagues support this new direction and are committed to change in their own lives, and if not, look around for ones that do.

And if you really want to catapult your capacity to transform, join us for the Power2 Leaderlab. There’s nothing like being part of a cohort of smart and interesting women to ensure success.



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