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On Keeping a New Year’s Resolution

written by Kathryn Britton 7 January 2007

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

New Year resolution to edit family photos

New Year resolution to edit family photos

Making New Year’s Resolutions is an expression of faith in our own ability to change habits for the better, a perfectly justified faith. However, changing a habit is not easy and we often go about it in ways that almost guarantee failure. No wonder New Year Resolutions are such a source of comedy!

With insights from positive psychology going back to William James’s 19th century essay Habits and continuing through recent research on will power, motivation, and goals, we can greatly increase the probability of successfully improving specific habits. The suggestions below are common-sense applications of positive psychology to daily life.

  1. Focus on changing behavior rather than achieving a particular result because that is what you can control. For example, you control the way you speak to others, but you do not control the way they respond to you. Consistent reinforcement of a resolution is much more likely when the feedback comes from seeing yourself behaving in a new way rather than from results that may be affected by other factors. For example, if you focus on improving your eating habits rather than on losing weight, you are much less vulnerable to being discouraged if your weight fluctuates.
  2. If your resolution involves stopping a particular behavior, couple it with starting a replacement behavior. If you think of a habit as a mental pathway like a well-trodden footpath, it is not hard to see why trying to stop a habit reinforces it rather than breaking it by keeping your attention focused on it. If you want to stop a habit such as having an extra drink at bedtime, figure out something else to do when you find yourself following the old habit. This could be a similar but more benign habit, such as drinking cocoa instead of liquor. Or it could be a different type of behavior such as meditating or reading. In effect, you have decided on a new mental pathway that you want to follow in place of the old. But it takes time before the old pathway starts to disappear in the weeds, and new habits take practice before they become like well-trodden footpaths.
  3. Manage your will power. Research by Roy Baumeister and his colleagues indicates that will power behaves like a physical muscle in two ways.
    • On a particular occasion, will power becomes increasingly weaker each time it is used. Thus it is easier to turn down a drink the first time it is offered at a party than the second time, which is easier than the third time, and so on. Being aware that your will power can get tired can lead you to thinking of strategies to reduce the number of times you need to use it on a given occasion. Avoiding temptation makes sense.
    • Will power can be strengthened, just as a muscle can, with exercise. Even better, strengthened will power is not specific to the particular activity that you use to strengthen it. I strengthen my will power by straightening my back anytime I notice that I am slumping. That means I have chances to practice all day long, including time spent waiting in grocery store lines. I like the idea that grocery-store exercise increases the will power that I have available later in high-temptation settings.
  4. Associate the new habit with something else that you find pleasant. I am not so lucky that I enjoy daily exercise for its own sake. Instead I motivate myself by working Sudoku puzzles while on the stationary bike and watching old mysteries while on the rowing machine. Sometimes I do not want to stop.
  5. We are all prone to slip back into using the old habit rather than the new one that is under construction. The old is comfortable and easy, the new requires will power and conscious thought. So when you do slip, be aware that spending lots of time berating yourself actually reinforces the old habit. It is better to give yourself a 30-second reprimand and then seek an opportunity to exercise or reinforce the new habit as soon as possible.
  6. Reinforce the habit by exercising it in the imagination. We can do this by revisiting the past or visualizing the future.
    • Some people keep track of successful uses of a new habit and reread the list of reinforcing moments frequently. Rereading them is like treading again on the new footpath.
    • Some people frequently visualize themselves carrying out the new habit in the future. For example, a person who wanted to change the way she used her voice in tense meetings could visualize in as much detail as possible using the new habit, including the circumstances making her tense, the way she centers her thinking, and the way it sounds and feels to speak in strong tones.

    I have heard that there is evidence that the mental activity involved in remembering a vividly visualized experience is not very different from remembering events that actually occur, but I’m not sure I could find the reference.

  7. Finally, work on only one or two resolutions at a time. Just as parents are more successful when they try to modify one behavior at a time with their children, we are more successful when we aren’t trying to fix everything at once. Our will power and conscious attention are limited. We achieve more by focusing them rather than spreading them thin. Success at changing one habit is a great basis for making next year’s resolution.

Let’s applaud the value of habits in our lives. William James understood that habits make actions simpler, more accurate, and less exhausting than they would be if we had to consciously focus on carrying out each action. Conscious mental energy is a limited resource that habits conserve. But not all habits are equally good. A yearly re-examination of habits to select one or two to improve is a custom that makes sense — when we can do it effectively.

Good luck!

References (added later)

Baumeister, R. & Tierny, J. (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Books.

Prochaska, J. O., Norcross, J. C. & Diclemente, C. C. (1994). Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward. New York: HarperCollins.

Feb 2009 Edits Finished! courtesy of Coffeeshop Rita. Her resolution was to edit and print all of her family photos from 2009 in two months (by Feb. 28th).

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

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Senia Maymin 7 January 2007 - 10:07 am

Great article, Kathryn, thank you! I especially like your summary about habits: “William James understood that habits make actions simpler, more accurate, and less exhausting than they would be if we had to consciously focus on carrying out each action.”

Also, around last New Year’s, I read about this research by Ann Graybiel of MIT that really surprised me and supported your suggestion #2: Create a Replacement Behavior. Graybiel’s research shows that the old behavior does not go away at all. It is somewhere ingrained very deeply and the best way to replace an old habit is to repeat a replacement behavior again and again so that it develops neural pathways that are stronger, more pleasant, and more automatic than the original behaviors. And, similarly, to not go into or to be careful of situations that trigger old behaviors.

Very interesting article here. Thank you, Kathryn.

Kathryn Britton 8 January 2007 - 8:45 am

Thank you Senia for the reference to Ann Graybiel’s work. The idea of developing new neural pathways was the thread that tied my article together.

I’ve been struggling a little bit with how to make the articles readable but still establish that they are based on empirical results, not JUST our own experience, though that also is important. I think that we can do this in comments — we can embellish our own and other people’s articles with references to empirical research.

A friend of many years experience read my article and said the only thing that was completely new to her was the information about using up will power. I realize that many things we can say have been said by wise people for ages. What Positive Psychology adds is a foundation of empirical research. So thank you again for your contribution.

Jeff 8 January 2007 - 8:05 pm

Your research is exciting and very much promising to habit changers. Do you have any thoughts on what triggers moving from contemplation and ambivalence to action?

Senia Maymin 9 January 2007 - 12:39 pm

Jeff, have you read the book Changing for Good by Prochaska et. al?

Kathryn Britton 9 January 2007 - 3:05 pm


I know that there are many factors, but the one that popped into my mind was achieving a sense of self-efficacy, that is, a sense that one CAN control the behavior. Albert Bandura defines self-efficacy as “people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives.” (available on the Web at http://www.des.emory.edu/mfp/BanEncy.html — most of Albert Bandura’s writings are freely available on the Web.)

In this article, he describes 4 means of achieving self-efficacy in decreasing order of effectiveness:

1. Mastery experiences — Thus, effectively changing one habit increases one’s self-efficacy for changing further habits. That’s one reason I believe it is best to focus on changing a few habits effectively.

2. Vicarious mastery, or observing people like oneself having mastery experiences — Thus, seeing someone that you identify with change a habit can raise the probability that you can. This is one more reason for working on our own habits, since we influence others.

3. Social persuasion — others telling us we can achieve goals

4. Positive interpretation of moods and physical stressors. I can’t say it better than Bandura did: “It is not the sheer intensity of emotional and physical reactions that is important but rather how they are perceived and interpreted. People who have a high sense of efficacy are likely to view their state of affective arousal as an energizing facilitator of performance, whereas those who are beset by self- doubts regard their arousal as a debilitator.” (same article)

So perhaps one instigator of action is reframing the way one looks at earlier experiences and the stresses that one feels now while contemplating the change.

I think you can tell that I really admire this article on self-efficacy, and have found it an influence on many aspects of my life.


Jeff 12 January 2007 - 12:26 am


I intend to get a copy of Changing for Good. It seems helpful. So tks!


Your comments and suggestions had a real impact on my thinking. As positive psych coaches you are doing something very important with a large and lasting impact. I wish you the best of success with Theano Coaching.

After reading what Bandura had to say, I reconsidered the importance of self-efficacy beliefs. I find that I have doubts about success with certain goals, especially maintenance. I can’t see myself sticking it out and rolling the boulder uphill for the long term. My experiences have reinforced these beliefs. I used to be a pretty decent athlete, but now the computer chair beckons me and its hard to get off my bum and do something athletic. I believe short term I can do it, but long term I strongly doubt it.

I’ve taken the VIA Strengths questionnaire and self-regulation is near the very bottom for me. When given the choice of a tough but worthwhile task and an easy way out, I’ll opt for the easier but ultimately less satisfying and potentially health damaging choice. This is distressing but the behavior resists my change efforts. As a coach you must see this all the time, no? Even when I believe I can do it, I often foolishly CHOOSE to do the easier activity because its more fun in the moment. I’m the marshmellow kid that doesn’t wait for the extra marshmellow but gobbles the one the experimenter gave out first. See http://www.ronaldgross.com/Marshmallow.html

What do you do that you’d much rather not do? How do you motivate yourself?

I’d love to hear your insights on this!

Kathryn Britton 12 January 2007 - 9:10 am


While we were in the MAPP program, we tried out a positive intervention called “Wanting what you want to want (WWYWW)”. I think this was the invention of James Pawelski. He’s certainly the one who taught it to us.

Here are some notes I kept about how to do it. Maybe James will (or has) written up up more extensively. I’ll check to see.

Wanting to want what you want to want

Purpose: To help one cultivate voluntary attention in order to bring desires more in line with values

Practice voluntary attention
Act (or refrain from acting)

1. Get a friend who has your best interests at heart.
2. Figure out something that you want to want to do. In your case it sounds like athletics.
3. The friend asks you where you are with respect to wanting to do this activity – e.g., on a scale from -10 to 10, where are you?
4. THen the friend asks you to think of something that would move your motivation in the OPPOSITE direction. For example, “What would make you want to exercise even less?”
5. After you think up something, e.g., afterwards I’m all sweaty and I don’t always have time for a shower, then the friend asks, where does that take you? Generally it takes you further away from where you want to be.
6. Keep doing this until you get as close to the other extreme as you think you can get.

7. Now reverse direction. Your friend asks you, “What would make you want to exercise more?” After you answer, the friend asks where does that take you?

8. Keep doing this until you get as close to your goal as possible (10 for doing something, -10 for refraining from doing something).

Why go the opposite direction? I think it helps because it brings out the obstacles which then give you ideas for things to say moving in the positive direction. For example, one of your statements could be, “It feels so good to be sweaty and then take a hot shower.”

This exercise is a lot like coaching in that you need someone to talk to when you do it. The words of wisdom come out of your own mouth, but saying them out loud to someone else makes them real.

Let me know how it works for you.

PS My husband has self-regulation as one of his top 5 signature strengths. It is quite amazing to live around someone with that degree of self control. I guess that gives me some vicarious mastery.

Kathryn Britton 12 January 2007 - 9:16 am

Oops – submitted before I’d finished harvesting from my notes.

First, the intervention should be done in a place where you can act immediately. For example, go to the gym with your friend. Make sure you have time to exercise when you finish.

– Practicing voluntary attention within exercise
– Go away from, then toward desired direction
– Goal is to actually feel a shift in desire
– This shift is likely to be very short – “kindling”
– Must follow with action to take advantage of the shift while it is active
– Following the exercise
– Go only in the desired direction in your thinking
– Unless you need to uncover obstacles to be addressed — but be sure to follow them by moving in desired direction
– Act. Act. Act.

This is just an aid. The hard work of building a new habit is acting over and over driven by your voluntary attention until the action becomes habitual.

Jeff 12 January 2007 - 10:42 pm

The WWYWW exercise is a very sharp idea. I am most impressed with it of the exercises I’ve seen so far.

I will practice this daily until it becomes a habit and report back here from time to time to let you know if it was effective. As I promised in another comment, if this works for 365 days I will gladly donate 100 dollars to the charity of your choice, just to make this interesting.

One question: what is voluntary attention and how does it work?

Kathryn Britton 14 January 2007 - 4:17 pm

My charity of choice — to be a little ahead of the game — is the fund that the MAPP alums started for funding future scholarships. I hope you feel inclined to make a contribution – that you WWYWW for 365 days. You don’t have to go in the opposite direction every day — just whenever you find yourself blocked by obstacles, it helps you recognize what they are.

Voluntary attention is just the small fraction of your thinking and decision-making that is under your conscious control. Nothing fancy — just what you have to work with when you try to change a habit intentionally.

Jeff 14 January 2007 - 7:11 pm

its now 364 days and if you like, you can email me directly at jeffdustin@gmail.com with the details. I suspect that WWYWW is going to be quite helpful.

Jeff 14 January 2007 - 7:12 pm

BTW, if you have any other ideas on voluntary attention or habit changing (or anything really) shoot me an email. Its one of my favorite things to read and talk about.

Jeff 23 January 2007 - 7:43 am

I love variations on a theme…what are some creative ways to play with voluntary attention for motivational purposes? By the way, I’m finding WWYWW helpful, no question about it. I think identifying the stumbling blocks or obstacles is a great way to problem solve and seeing the positives allows for better savoring.

Kathryn, you really turned me on to Bandura. Very well done.:wink:

Kathryn Britton 24 January 2007 - 11:57 am

Have you seen Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Happiness Hypothesis? He plays with the idea of conscious attention being the rider on the elephant. That reflects its relative size and power. There’s much more there about voluntary attention.

Perhaps I will think about this for my next article on February 7.

I am glad WWYWW is going well.

Jeff 24 January 2007 - 2:45 pm


Jon Haidt and I have some email correspendence and I’ve been enjoying The Happiness Hypothesis since it came out in my local Borders. He’s got an amazing mind. As far as self-improvement books go the HH is a useful tool. Especially important to me was the chapter on reciprocity. That is a powerful technology for getting along with others.

Since I’m now a grad student in special education, I’ve been taking a course on Behavior modification. Part of what is interesting about WWYWW is the you are considering the attractives and the aversives. It seems to me that the competing pleasureable influences in life can derail you as much or more than the aversive elements.

David J. Pollay 28 January 2007 - 1:41 am

Hi Jeff and Kathryn,

I love your dialogue! You guys are a living positive intervention!

And Kathryn your guidance for helping us make positive change in our lives was well-done!





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