Create resolutions that work for you NOT against you
New year, new you? A cliché perhaps, but each New Year brings excitement and promise to millions, even billions of people across the globe.
New Year’s resolutions date back to Roman times when promises were made at the beginning of the year to the god Janus (after whom the month January is named). The Romans replaced pagan rituals with Christian ones and the concept of New Year pledges has endured in various forms throughout the ages.
A panacea for self-improvement, New Year’s resolutions come in many guises, most commonly health and fitness, financial, charitable and work-related goals. But no matter how good our intentions or how worthy the cause we don’t always achieve what we set out to do.
New Year’s flop
According to a study of 3,000 people by Richard Wiseman (University of Bristol), 88% of those who set New Year resolutions fail, despite the fact that 52% of the study’s participants were confident of success at the beginning.
A great example is fitness goals! Gym memberships soar in the New Year as perhaps the most common resolution is to ‘get fit and lose weight’. Throughout January every class is fully booked and it’s almost impossible to get your turn on the running machine. Come February however it’s business as usual.
The only way to succeed is to “negotiate” a settlement between our logical and emotional brains.
Get a grip on your emotions
The fundamental problem with New Year’s resolutions is that they are set using our logical brain – the newer, more rational part of our brain that has developed over the last 2 million years.
Our emotional brain on the other hand is 500 million years old. It is responsible for our survival instincts and regularly overrides our logical brain.
So while our logical brain is telling us to get fit, lose weight and go to the gym – our emotional brain will convince us that cake and television are far more rewarding.
Research shows that emotion is five times stronger than logic, so we will never “win” over our emotional brain. Steve Peters, the elite sports psychologist, suggests that the only way to succeed is to “negotiate” a settlement between our logical and emotional brains.
Breaking down barriers
As an example, last year I decided I’d like to include yoga as a regular part of my schedule. I realised that going to weekly one-hour classes would not work for me. There were too many barriers – my busy schedule, business travel and even the thought of a one-hour class was enough to put me off. Instead, I reached an agreement with myself that four minutes of yoga first thing in the morning was a commitment I could achieve wherever I was.
Just a few minutes of yoga every day may seem trivial, but over the course of a year I have reaped benefits. Most importantly, by minimising barriers I have stuck to my resolution.
Make it easy
In his book The Happiness Advantage Shawn Achor suggests ‘activation energy’ is a barrier we need to overcome to achieve goals. He specifically refers to the 20 Second Rule’ – that is, if something takes longer than 20 seconds to activate the chances are we won’t do it. If we are setting out to make a habit we must decrease the activation time. Leaping out of bed in the morning to do yoga takes no activation energy, whereas putting on gym kit and driving to a class takes a lot of activation energy, and is therefore less likely to succeed.
Just don’t forget – when setting those goals, your emotional brain must agree!
Timothy Gallwey, regarded by many as the father of coaching, wrote The Inner Game of Tennis in 1974. He later demonstrated how the same fundamentals apply to getting the best out of people at work, publishing The Inner Game of Work in 2000.
Gallwey’s central tenet is that we consist of two parts, Self 1 and Self 2
Self 1 is conscious, rational and thinking. Self 2 is our unconscious, intuitive self that largely works on autopilot.
Interestingly, since 1974 many of his findings have been backed up by neuroscience. Self 1 can be equated to the logical brain (pre-frontal cortex), and Self 2 to the emotional brain (limbic system).
The pre-frontal cortex is the newest part of our brain, representing just 4% of its total mass. It gives us our rational abilities but is limited in processing capability, is very energy hungry and shuts down under stress. Neuroscientists use the analogy that if our logical brain represents our pocket-change, the limbic system represents the global economy! In short, our limbic system stores our total life experience.
Gallwey says that what gets in the way of top performance is our (logical) Self 1’s critical and judgemental chatter. In tennis, or any other sport, if we hit a bad shot, we reprimand ourselves, instructing ourselves what we should have done differently. Others are also very keen to give us corrective advice. Gallwey says this is like a pocket calculator giving instructions to a super computer!
I’d no longer see a ball, but a threat flying through the air.
I remember my grandfather teaching me cricket as a little boy. Every time I missed he’d tell me: keep your eye on the ball. I’d be so concerned about following his instructions, and pressurised to do well that I’d end up missing even more shots. I’d no longer see a ball, but a threat flying through the air. From a young age I’d defined myself as no good at cricket. This cycle was perpetuated through school – I was always last to get chosen for the cricket team, and this identity was now firmly in place.
Avoid threatening questions
Far better to ask non-judgemental, descriptive questions. For instance, when teaching tennis Gallwey suggests asking questions such as which direction is the ball spinning as it approaches you? Is it rising or falling on contact with the racket?
Such questions create an awareness of the ball and its movement. As the student becomes absorbed in noticing the flight of the ball, Self 1 is distracted from trying to control the shot, and Self 2 is left to learn how to play the shot free from interference. Invariably learning happens much faster and more naturally when threat and judgement are removed.
Gallwey summarises this in the formula: Performance = Potential – Interference (threat and judgement).
The impact of interference can be seen in the Stroop effect. Say the following colours aloud row by row:
Easy! Now say the colour of the ink of each of the words below:
Very confusing – we have to focus on suppressing our desire to read the word. This invokes the inhibition circuitry of our logical brain, which slows the whole process down, making it jerky, unnatural and hard work.
This is similar to what happens to our performance either on the sports field or at work when we are over-instructed, rather than allowed to learn for ourselves.
The default way to manage others in the workplace is by giving instructions and corrective advice. Hopefully it will now be apparent that coaching by asking non-judgemental questions might be a better way to achieve long-term change and improved performance in both yourself and those you manage.
Allowing others to find out for themselves, rather than telling them, not only creates enduring change, but also a more engaged, learning culture.
If you want to
- Reduce blame and fear in the workplace to create a fertile environment that encourages best efforts, creative thinking and problem solving
- Generate confidence and self belief in your workforce; instilling a desire to succeed and push boundaries
- Coach your people and hold them accountable to deliver the goods
- Give others ownership for their results, allowing them to learn from their own mistakes
- Demand people’s best efforts – and celebrate their success
Use our sophisticated technology to identify traits that differentiate high performers from average. Coach individuals in the behaviours that are more productive.