How are you doing with your New Year’s resolutions? That’s become a rather dirty phrase for most of us, hasn’t it? That’s because it’s so difficult, usually, to stay in the game with the resolutions we create. Why? It’s not that our goals and values change in the first few weeks of the year. It’s not that we didn’t carefully construct these resolutions. It’s not that we are self-sabotaging. It’s simply that we didn’t attend to our self-efficacy in ways that matter.
Self-efficacy is the belief that we can (or cannot) actually accomplish these resolutions, or any other goals we set for ourselves. Self-efficacy, or whether or not you believe you can be successful with a task, changes depending on the task. No one should have high self-efficacy all the time and in every situation.
For example, I’m in the pre-training training stages for running a marathon in October. Right now, I’m making sure I’m ready to start the 18-week training schedule come June. My goal is to simply and sanely finish the race. This is a goal for which I’m doing things to increase my self-efficacy; I’m hoping to feel efficacious when June rolls around and I start heeding Hal Higdon’s training schedule. So far, I have high self-efficacy with this goal.
But regarding another goal I have, which is to win—in my age group—a race, I have very low self-efficacy. I don’t think I’ll ever be fast enough to do that. Sure, I’d love for this to happen, but I don’t feel efficacious about this goal, and I’m not going to put much energy into raising my self-efficacy with this goal just now.
Another goal I have is to be able to do all of my own auto-mechanic work. My self-efficacy here is even lower than my self-efficacy for winning a race. And that’s okay. Our beliefs about how successful we will be should change with each task or goal.
Here’s some good news: Self-efficacy is malleable. You can increase the likelihood that you will succeed with your goals and resolutions by doing very specific, easy things that are scientifically proven to raise your self-efficacy.
I want to focus on five easy options that you can use to increase the likelihood that you will succeed with your New Year’s resolutions. See what you think.
- Hang out with peers who have succeeded at similar goals or resolutions. By peers, I mean people who have something significant in common with you. Figure out, according to your goal, what factors are significant with your peers. If your resolution is to learn Spanish and your first language is English, hang out with English-speakers who have become fluent in Spanish. For my marathon goal, I need to hang out with late forty-somethings who have been life-long running dabblers if I want this tactic to really boost my self-efficacy. In the first example, age doesn’t matter, in the second example, native tongue doesn’t matter. Once you’ve found your peers, find out how they succeeded. Emulate them. Use them as resources and as proof that someone like you can succeed with this goal. BONUS: if you can’t get together in person, know that studies have shown that reading the words of or listening to the podcasts of peers who have succeeded also boosts self-efficacy.
- Break down the resolution or goal into bite-sized pieces and celebrate your successes. There’s a very real thing that your brain does in order to increase your chances of survival. Your brain is geared towards fixating on the negative. It’s called Negativity Bias. It’s what kept our oldest ancestors alive. It’s also what contributes to anxiety and depression today. We need to overcompensate for this negative worldview by giving much more attention to the small, positive experiences we have. If your goal is to save enough money to upgrade your computer, and you offered to pick up Thursday’s Happy Hour tab as a gift for your colleague who just got promoted, do not beat yourself up over the expenditure. Instead, celebrate and really soak up how good it feels when you brew coffee at home for a full week instead of hitting up Staribou Bros. Or perhaps celebrate and bask in the feeling of walking the three blocks from the free parking lot rather than dropping ten bucks on rock-star parking right next to the building. If your resolution is to finally finish that novel you’ve been working on for years, consider celebrating every 100-word addition to your novel rather than only celebrating completed chapters. Allowing yourself to fully feel and honor the tiny, positive steps you are taking toward your goal will compensate for the negativity your brain thinks it has to focus on. Think of yourself as needing five celebrations to undo the feeling of one failure en route to your goal.
- Only listen to the critiques of those people who understand your goal. Do not listen to the critiques of those who do not understand your goal. If your honey-sweetie-darling likes you to be available every weekend, and weekends are the only times you have to, say, take classes that will get you closer to your goal, or to meet with peers who have had the success you desire, you have two options. One, educate your honey-sweetie-darling on why this goal matters and how weekends are your only options to get there, or two, push on, be unavailable while you are working toward your goal, and hope for the best. I guess there may be three options—you could ditch the honey-sweetie-darling. That’s up to you. But ditching your goal should not be an option. Let’s look at another example. If your goal is to become a teacher, you may be tempted to listen to general public opinion on teachers and teaching. But does gen pub really know you? Is gen pub an expert on education? If not, seek critique of your goals and progress from someone who is an expert on either you or your goal.
- Welcome and celebrate signs of struggle along the way. If you don’t try, you cannot fail. But at the same time, if you don’t try, you cannot succeed. Our bodies send us signals when things really matter to us: sweaty palms, shaking legs, rapid and shallow breathing, butterflies in our stomachs, and the list goes on. Know that these are exactly what you should want to experience! Oftentimes, we perceive these as weaknesses or as signs that we should stop, give up, or reconsider. Instead of quitting when the necessary signs of growth show up, celebrate them. Acknowledge the fact that you are closer to success because you are allowing yourself to outgrow your comfort zone. Recently, I was invited to train firefighters on how to deal with trauma in a way that builds their self-efficacy and increases their resiliency. Me? Train firefighters? What do I know of the types of trauma they see daily? I was nervous. I wore a sweater so sweat was less likely to show through. When I started the first presentation, and I felt that initial trickle, I silently applauded myself that I was doing this thing that mattered to me. And then I celebrated the fact that I’d had the foresight to wear a sweater. And instead of thinking, “Oh, I’m not the right person to be doing this—last week it made me sweat,” I showed up and gave more presentations the following week. Celebrate your physiological responses, as human as they may be, and know that you are alive, on the right track, and making progress.
- Approach your resolution when you are in a good mood. If you are never in a good mood, figure out what will put you in a good mood and do it. It’s easy to have a bad day and then figure, “Well, I’m already having a crap day…may as well fail at one more thing,” and then make a haphazard attempt at getting closer to your goal. Why do we do that? Boredom? Do we want to make a moderately bad day into a spectacularly bad day for our followers? Hm. Who knows why we do it, but we can stop. Take care of your psychological and emotional self and then approach those bite-sized steps toward your goal that we talked about earlier. Bite-sized steps, when approached from a place of happiness, might actually feel like rewards within themselves. Let this happen for you.
You may already know that I truly love geeking out on self-efficacy experts and studies. The focus of my PhD dissertation was self-efficacy; that’s how much I like the concept. I find it empowering that we can take small steps that increase our likelihood of staying in the game with our goals. There are a few other concrete things you can do to raise your self-efficacy, but right now, I like these five. They are manageable. If you’ve already dashed your hopes of completing your New Year’s resolutions, or if you didn’t make any because…why bother? Well, here is another chance. Maybe this year you play by the Chinese calendar. Chinese New Year is January 25th this year. Do an experiment—try again. But this time, play around with one or all of these five options. Increase your self-efficacy. You can.