New Year, new you?

I've been mulling over the meaning of  'resolution' as the New Year crept up on me.

Plot resolution

Sometimes, a resolution can be the end of something - like when Poirot gathers everyone together to explain who the murderer is.  The threads are drawn together, the loose ends are tied up.  The plot is resolved and that chapter of the characters' lives closed.

Perhaps, as Auld Lang Syne is sung, some New Year's resolutions are to do with leaving family feuds behind as people close the old year neatly.

Resolving dilemmas

In the field of stakeholder engagement - particularly the part of the spectrum I'm happiest in, where the aim is co-enquiry and co-creation, and the approach is closer to dialogue - resolution is often about understanding dilemmas and choices, and finding the win-win.

I'm not sure how this might apply to New Year Resolutions.  I guess there would need to be a lot of exploration and reflection in the autumn and winter months in order for a resolution of this kind to emerge bang on schedule on 31st December.  This kind of self-imposed yet public deadline can help coordinate the efforts of the various people involved - although it doesn't seem to have been useful at Copenhagen.

Making your mind up

Related to resolving a dilemma is the idea of coming to a conclusion about a choice or decision.  When you resolve to do something, you are consciously committing to a particular course of action.   When Lady Macbeth urges her wavering husband to "screw your courage to the sticking-place" she's encouraging him to strengthen his resolve and take an action which is irreversible.   The scene ends with Macbeth reassuring her "I am settled".

This kind of resolution must surely lead to significant and rapid action - delay might 'unsettle' the resolution.

Conference, I move

Many years ago, I had the dubious honour of being part of a team organising the formal annual conference of a UK NGO.  Its particular semi-democratic structure meant that every year we had 'motions to conference' which, if passed, became 'resolutions'.  Some people took the standing orders of the conference very seriously, and were helpful in making sure that we stuck to our rules.  Others found the debating and voting process old-fashioned and restrictive, frustrated by the way it turned interesting choices and genuine puzzles into win/lose combats.

These sorts of resolutions bind an organisation - they settle arguments and commit people to action.  Some organisations are very good at wriggling out of the commitments quietly at a later date.  Perhaps the resolution was worded loosely, and is open to interpretation.  Perhaps the process was flawed allowing the resolution to be set aside.  Perhaps the people charged with actioning the resolution have new information which wasn't available at the time, and feel justified in ignoring it.

These are excuses - if the people implementing the resolution really agreed with it, they wouldn't find ways of wriggling out of it.  They'd find ways of pushing it through.

This is beginning to sound a bit more like most people's experiences of New Year's resolutions : commitments which aren't really commitments, where even weak excuses are seized on as explanations and justifications for broken promises.

New Year's resolutions as explicit commitments to change behaviour

I'm working with two different clients on behaviour change at the moment, so I'm particularly interested in the parallels between New Year's resolutions and other ways of encouraging or supporting changed behaviour.

There's an important point to notice here:  New Year's resolutions are, in theory, voluntary.  They are related to a change in behaviour of the person making the commitment.  For both my clients, the behaviour they want to change is other people's behaviour (staff, contractors, consumers).  This seems to me to be a crucial difference, and one which I'm keen to explore more with them and in my wider practice.

Having acknowledged that, what are the parallels between New Year's resolutions and behaviour change programmes?

One striking parallel is the relatively low chances of success combined with a kind of complacent optimism!

I notice over and over how people go into behaviour change work as if they believe that making a commitment and announcing it means that it will happen.  Too often, very little effort is put into preparation, planning and prior engagement. The supporting activities, positive feedback and physical resources are missing.  (See here for a posting about the six sources of influence which help catalyse and reinforce new behaviours.)

Fortunately for us all, the appropriately named Prof. Richard Wiseman, psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, reveals the secrets of keeping your New Year's resolutions.

Prof. Wiseman's four top tips are:

  1. Break your goal into a series of steps, focusing on creating sub-goals that are concrete, measurable, and time-based.
  2. Tell your friends and family about your goals, thus increasing the fear of failure and eliciting support.
  3. Regularly remind yourself of the benefits associated with achieving your goals by creating a checklist of how life would be better once you obtain your aim.
  4. Expect to revert to your old habits from time to time. Treat any failure as a temporary set-back rather than a reason to give up altogether.

There are six more tips on his blog.

Incidentally, it's worth noting the two categories of resolution: acheiving a goal (in our case, let's use the 10:10 campaign goal of  'cutting carbon emissions by 10% in 2010') and changing a behaviour (for example, not eating meat on Mondays).  Paul Maisey's blog on New Year's resolutions concentrates on setting well-formed, congruent and authentic goals.

One of the comments on the Prof.'s blog astutely observes:

You have to really want the new behaviour, not just the ultimate outcome.

So it's crucial to find behaviours which you enjoy (or could come to enjoy) which contribute to meeting the goal.

My resolution

So I'm off to do my dull old exercises which will, in time, allow my knee to recover sufficiently that I can get back on my bike and feel the wind in my hair as I travel fast and carbon-neutral to meetings.

  1. SMART - do them five times a week.
  2. Tell people - well I'm telling you now.
  3. Remind myself of the benefits - hang my cycle helmet on the back of the office door.
  4. Treat lapses as temporary set-backs not as a 'broken' resolution - I resolve to do this.

And the bonus - how can I want to do the exercises for themselves, as well as wanting the ultimate outcome?  Listen to the radio, award myself a star each day.

And I further resolve to share the Prof.'s research with my clients, when we come to develop approaches to behaviour change.

Happy New Year!

Update

25th Jan - and I'm keeping up with the exercises.  The stars I put in my diary each time I do the stretches are proving motivating.  So far I'm slightly ahead of my goal, which was to do the routine five days out of seven.  And the outcome?  I cycled up to the farmers market on Saturday!