Anatomy of a New Year’s Resolution
The science of sticking to it
We all know of at least one horribly annoying overachiever who accomplishes every goal she sets for herself. She’s run countless marathons, clocked in hours of volunteer work with Guatemalan orphans, and obtained dual doctoral degrees in music performance (she plays cello) and mathematics (her dissertation on four-dimensional fractals sent shock waves through the mathematical community). She doesn’t eat meat or carbohydrates and her French is impeccable. She’s really nice. She leaves you no option but to hate her.
What makes her so successful? And how can you co-opt a bit of her mojo?
If the key to success were easy to obtain, the self-help book industry wouldn’t be the billion-dollar business that it is. The pseudo-psychology spewed forth by Eckhart Tolle and the creepy woman responsible for The Secret may have given Oprah a spiritual tickle in the seat of her Daytime Emmy-winning soul, but the truth is that quality scientific evidence supporting various behavioral change strategies is relatively sparse and often inconsistent. With that being said, I’d like to introduce you to two theories that are particularly apropos this time of year.
A theory of behavioral change called the Transtheoretical Model is widely used in health care and boasts a decent body of research behind it. According to the model, people who successfully implement behavioral change, such as smoking cessation, employ certain “processes of change” in order to pass through the various “stages of change.” Decoded into quasi-regular-people language, the stages of change include:
1) Precontemplation: The person has zero desire to change.
2) Contemplation: The person is considering a change.
3) Preparation: The person intends to take action in the immediate future.
4) Action: A period of overt lifestyle modification.
5) Maintenance: The person has implemented a change but must work to prevent relapse.
6) Termination: There’s zero temptation to relapse. People may never completely achieve the termination stage.
In order to successfully negotiate these stages, it’s important to match processes of change with their corresponding stage of change—for instance, “consciousness-raising” is a process of change used to move people from the precontemplation to the contemplation stage of change. Someone who’s curious about a weight loss program may seek information about the ill effects of diabetes during the consciousness-raising process.
If the change you’re contemplating fills you with anxiety, you may lack something called self-efficacy, a situation-specific confidence in your ability to successfully cope with the needed changes. Processes of change that can aid your goals include establishing a helping relationship (like hiring a personal trainer) and engaging in stimulus control (in which you modify your environment to avoid temptation).
Another interesting theory, informally known as the Marshmallow Theory of Success, was developed from research demonstrating that young children who were able to resist the temptation of eating a marshmallow were much more likely to lead successful lives than children who weren’t able to resist the siren song of the marshmallow. These children were followed for the 30 years, and the ability to delay gratification proved to be the strongest predictor for life success—even stronger than raw intelligence.
If the change you’re contemplating fills you with anxiety, you may lack something called self-efficacy.
Researchers found that children who were able to successfully delay gratification employed certain strategies to cope with temptation, such as covering their eyes to avoid looking at the marshmallow or playing a little game in the corner to distract themselves. This skill is called “strategic allocation of attention,” and subsequent research has demonstrated that it is a skill that can be successfully taught and learned. So if you’re the type of person who immediately molests any marshmallow within a hundred yard radius, take heart. Science is on your side!
While behavioral theory is extremely complex and notoriously difficult to test, it’s worth knowing that behavioral change is something you are capable of achieving, especially if you’re armed with strategies, support and resources. And look on the bright side! Little Miss Perfect got a head start when it comes to the necessary tools for behavioral modification, but I bet she didn’t have nearly as much fun studying French verb conjugations as you had during your blackout weekend in Juárez.
Whitny Doyle is a registered nurse and a family nurse practitioner graduate student. She writes the Alibi’s Miss Diagnosis health column.