Turning Resolutions into Reality

Harvard Business Review

January 4, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

I am going to delegate this response to my daughter, Kelly Goldsmith. Kelly is a Whitebox Doctoral Fellow at Yale, where she is getting her Ph.D. in Behavioral Marketing. She is very interested in behavioral decision making.

Kelly and I were discussing your question over the holidays. I like her suggestions so much that am going to try them myself! Here are her thoughts:

New Year’s Resolutions are decisions that focus on the “big picture” of our lives. When we make these resolutions, we are in an abstract mindset. Decisions made in this mindset almost always favor long-term benefit (e.g. losing weight) or short-term cost (e.g. not eating the chocolate cake).

In our day-to-day lives, however, our decisions tend to veer toward the immediate. When we make daily decisions we are in a concrete’ mindset. Decisions made in this mindset often favor short-term benefit (e.g. this tastes great) over long-term cost (e.g. this will make me fat).

By deliberately putting ourselves in a big picture mindset, we can increase our odds of making daily decisions that reflect our New Year’s resolutions. In other words, we can increase our odds on becoming “the person I want to be,” as opposed to just replicating “the person I have been in the past.”

How to focus on the big picture when making daily decisions? Consider these suggestions:

1. Make a short list that describes “the person that I want to be” (e.g. I want to weigh 160 pounds.) This list should be closely aligned with your New Year’s resolutions.

2. Do whatever you can to keep this list in front of you during daily interactions. This might include placing it atop your daily “to do” list, making it a screen saver, or carrying it around in your wallet.

3. Review the list and put yourself in the big picture mindset before making daily decisions.

4. Face the reality that real change requires ongoing effort. It will probably be harder than you think and take longer than you think.

5. Only do it because, in your heart, you believe that it is the right thing to do. Over-focusing on the approval of others can be a mistake. If our motivation to change is based upon their approval, we become dispirited when we achieve our goals – and then find out they may not care or don’t even notice.

6. Don’t give up. Realize that on some days you will eat the cake. On other days you will hate the list. Just stick with it.