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Help for the Self-Helpers: Resolution Advice from the Experts

December 31, 2018
by Leah Worthington

That’s right, it’s that time of year again! The time to make grand promises to ourselves that we have every intention of keeping even when we know, deep down, that we probably won’t.

The science behind New Year’s resolutions—why we make them, why we continue to fail, how to finally succeed—is, well, murky. According to one study cited in Forbes (somewhat vaguely, I might add), only 8% of people achieve their New Year’s goals. Another, via U.S. News and seriously lacking in data, is a little more generous and says that only 80% of our resolutions fail. The truth is, we don’t need statistics to tell us what we already know: we’re great at setting overly-optimistic goals for the New Year, and less so at keeping them.

But never fear! UC Berkeley experts—versed in everything from fitness to finances—are here to offer their expert advice on how to, finally, achieve the ever-elusive “new year new you.”

Devin Wicks, Associate Director of Wellness and Fitness: “The start of a new year is a great time to tackle challenging goals like exercising regularly because it’s a time when our motivation to do something new is high. You can do hard things when you’re highly motivated! Take advantage of that high motivation, but remember it usually doesn’t last long. Start with setting exercise goals that focus on small, attainable steps. Make your workout easy to do. And every time you successfully complete that small step, celebrate! Tell yourself ‘I’m awesome,’ because you are! Not only are you healthier today, you’re establishing with positive reinforcement a great foundation for long-term health—the habit of exercise.

“The recipe for change is pretty simple at any time of the year: focus on the small steps and celebrate each and every success. You’ll discover, maybe without realizing it, that you’ve created a lifetime habit of health!”

Terrance Odean, Professor of Finance: “Automate your savings. If you’ve already done so, commit to increasing your rate of savings next time you get a raise. For example, you might commit to dedicating half of every raise to your automated savings. (Economics Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler calls this ‘Save More Tomorrow.’)”

Serena Chen, Professor of Psychology: “Advice for all kinds of relationships is twofold—listen better and take the ‘risk’ of being vulnerable.”

Don Moore, Professor of Leadership and Communication: “I have two pieces of advice:

1. Have realistic and achievable dreams

2. Be as persistent as you should be, given the utility of getting the job and the costs of doing so.”

Ming Leung, former Assistant Professor of Organizations Management: “The advice I would have for those looking for their dream job is to be prepared to provide a good narrative as to why the job you are interested in ‘fits’ into your life goals and motivations. If this is truly your dream job, then you must have a very compelling reason as to how it will fulfill your dreams. Being honest and vivid is the best approach to getting that job because that gives the employer confidence that you will be a committed employee.”

Celeste Kidd, Assistant Professor of Developmental Psychology: “Sticking with learning a new skill requires recognizing your progress, which can be hard when you’re completely incompetent at something because you don’t know yet what exactly you don’t know. My advice is to ask an expert for reasonable expectations about goals and timelines to make yourself aware. Then track your progress in some reasonable, convenient way, that makes sense given the particular skill. If it’s writing a big document, track how many words you are writing. If it’s coding, track efficiency at completing tasks. If it’s a physical thing, like acrobatics or dance, maybe take a video every few months.”

Richard Ivry, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience: “Practice practice practice—with some sleep in between.”

Vicki Zakrzewski, Education Director of the Greater Good Science Center: “One thing that helped me tremendously when I was going through a difficult period many years ago came from a research article on suffering. The author stated that the first step out of suffering is to recognize that you are suffering—many people don’t even realize that they’re suffering because they don’t know that there is another way to live. So, just knowing that you have agency to change how you feel can be a very powerful first step. And that first step will be different for many people. If someone is not sure where to begin, the Greater Good Science Center’s website Greater Good in Action might be a good start. It lists many different kinds of research-based practices that are super-simple to do and don’t take much time. I would suggest scanning the topics and see what clicks for you.”

Christine Carter, Sociologist and Senior Fellow at the Greater Good Science Center:

“1. Accept that sometimes, life (and people, and events, and work, etc.) will be disappointing.

“Acceptance is a strangely effective strategy for feeling happier and more relaxed. When we accept a person or a situation we find challenging, we let go of the resistance that creates stress and tension. There’s a lot of truth to the adage that ‘what we resist, persists.’

“2. Let go of expectations while turning your attention to what you appreciate.

“Some people (myself included) suffer from what I think of as an abundance paradox: Because we have so much, it becomes easy to take our good fortune for granted. As a result, we are more likely to feel disappointed when we don’t get what we want than to feel grateful when we do.

“Our high hopes (and high expectations) can be a slippery slope to unhappiness: Hoping a birthday will be the best-ever, for example, can quickly become a feeling that we won’t be happy unless it is, leading to sadness and disappointment when reality doesn’t live up to our ideal.

“Unfortunately, reality is unlikely to ever outdo our fantasies of how great everything could be. So the trick is to ditch our expectations and instead notice what is actually happening in the moment. And then find something about that moment to appreciate. Do you feel grateful that you have food and shelter? Are you thankful for your health (or if your health is not great, that you are still here)?”

Benjamin Smarr, Postdoctoral Fellow of Psychology: “Remember that sleep is an investment, like working out, and we know how well that goes for most resolutions. Getting a better sleep routine is important, and it’s not as painful or expensive as going to the gym, but it can seem stressful when there’s always more things to be done. So focus on the fact that you’ll do all those things faster and better when you’re well rested and getting good sleep. By making you smarter, quicker, and more emotionally resilient, sleep can actually add productive and positive time to your day.”

Allison Harvey, Professor of Clinical Psychology:

“1. Establish regular bed and wake times with dim lighting 30-60 minutes before bedtime and bright lighting on waking.

“2. Be sure to allow yourself sufficient opportunity to sleep. For example, to get 8 hours of sleep be sure to set aside 8.5 hours as it takes time to fall off to sleep at the beginning of the night and we often need to wake in the night to use the bathroom, etc.

“3. If you are having trouble sleeping, try waking up at about the same time every day (including weekends) for 2-3 weeks. Our wake-up time is like the anchor around which the sleep and circadian systems can align.”

Jennifer Chatman, Professor of Management: “One thing that enables people to advance their career is meeting other members who work in different parts of their organization. This is a great way to develop a broader understanding of the organization’s culture and operations, which can enable people to prepare themselves for going after a broader set of opportunities.”

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