Writing New Year’s resolutions is a time of gleeful possibility – in less than 12 months, you’re going to become the fit, prosperous and urbane leader you’ve always wanted to be. But as any gym-goer knows, the hardest part is sticking to your newfound goals. January’s gusto-filled proclamations can wither as reality – and your regular slog of workplace and personal demands – sets in. Here are five strategies to help your business resolutions stick in 2013.
Schedule your resolution. It’s not enough to vow that you’ll ask for 15 referrals a week or read industry publications 30 minutes a day. If you really want it to happen, you need to be specific about when – first thing in the morning (before you check email)? On your lunch break, to keep you and your burrito company? As Malcolm Gladwell famously recounted in The Tipping Point, Yale psychologist Howard Leventhal tested what it would take to prompt college students to get a tetanus shot – would a “high fear” or “low fear” message work best? Turns out, it didn’t matter – the only thing that spurred them to action was a campus map with the health center circled, and a list of times the shots were available. “The addition of the map and the time when the shots were available shifted the booklet from an abstract lesson in medical risk…to a practical and personal piece of medical advice,” Gladwell writes. “And once the advice became practical and personal, it became memorable.”
Create a posse. Your co-workers (and spouse) can be a valuable source of encouragement for your new resolutions – or they can derail them entirely. As fellow Forbes contributor Joseph Grenny and his co-authors recommend in Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success, “turn accomplices into friends.” That means explaining your resolutions – and why they matter to you – and asking for their support (maybe you’ll even find a buddy who’s also committed to raising his social media profile this year). You’ll also want to identify people who could be roadblocks – Ted in marketing, who’s irate you won’t join him on cigarette breaks anymore – and distance yourself if necessary. Creating an improved you sometimes means letting go of friendships that hold you back.
Make your pledge public. Eminent psychologist Robert Cialdini has emphasized the importance of the “commitment/consistency” principle: I’ve identified myself as a certain type of person (a gutsy sales executive, a nonsmoker, an executive on the move) and I don’t want to do anything to disrupt that image. You can use that desire to your advantage by making a bold, public pronouncement to keep yourself in line. Try a website like stickk.com (yes, with two “k’s”), where you state your goal – and make a bet on yourself. If you fail, a friend – or, even better, a cause you despise – will get the proceeds. The threat of public humiliation and the loss of big bucks can work wonders for your self-discipline.
Embrace small victories. In his landmark book Leading Change, former Harvard Business School professor John Kotter declared that “short-term wins” were essential to success. Whether you’re changing an organization with thousands of employees or “just” yourself, the process can be long, tiring, and thankless. Don’t let the long-term nature of change discourage your efforts in the here-and-now. Instead, identify micro wins you can reward. Made all of your customer contacts this week? Sounds like it’s time for your favorite frothy coffee treat. Built up your network by having several “power lunches”? Maybe your reward is an evening to yourself with classical music (or a screening of the Terminator – whatever you like). The key is choosing small but crucial actions, monitoring them, and then picking a fun reward that will keep your motivation high.
Don’t tax your willpower. You only have so much mental energy, according to John Tierney and Roy Baumeister, authors of the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, so use it on the right things. They report there is a “finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control.” If you’re constantly thinking about avoiding the peril of peanut M&Ms, studies show you’ll give up more quickly (or make rash decisions) on things that might actually matter – like work. So if your goal for 2013 is to land a major new client and shed 15 pounds, maybe you should consider tackling one at a time. For now, pass the M&Ms.
What are your resolutions for 2013 – and what are you doing to ensure you keep them?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on December 31, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.