January 28, 2011

Resolutions Resolved

One month after New Year’s, a lot of us are assessing how we’re doing with our resolutions. If you’re happy with your progress, nice work. If not, two different psych concepts might help:
1)    Timing: A basic principle of behaviour change is that, to be effective, the reward or punishment for a given behaviour has to occur close in time to the behaviour. For example, giving the dog a treat an hour after it rolls over or sending your child to her room the day after she misbehaves is not effective. The timing principle explains why lifestyle-related behaviour changes like losing weight, getting fit, or quitting smoking can be hard. The delay between behaviours like skipping dessert or working out and the rewards of losing weight or seeing changes in your physique is too long. The same holds for punishment. Lung cancer 15 years from now is not an effective punishment; it would be much easier to quit if a cigarette this morning gave you cancer this afternoon.

What to do: close the distance between the behaviour and the reward or punishment by creating interim rewards or punishments. For example, decide that eating three healthy and balanced meals today means you can watch an extra episode of whatever show you’re hooked on before bed. Get your partner to agree to give you a half-hour massage on Saturday if you go to the gym three times this week and to hide your laptop (or crochet needles, chocolate, camera, other important item) for 24 hours if you smoke more than one cigarette per day.  Adjust the rewards and punishments until they work for you!
2)    Values: Why do you want to quit smoking, lose weight, or spend more time with friends this year? Values describe what’s meaningful to you, what you stand for, and how you want to relate to and interact with other people and with the world. Values provide direction and motivation; connecting with them can help you commit to behaviour change and give you the sense that your hard work is worth the effort (in fact, there exists an entire school of therapy based on mindfulness and commitment to taking action guided by values).  For example, remembering that I value my physical health will help me exercise and eat well even when I don’t feel like it; connecting with my value of close family ties will help me keep my resolution to spend more time with my family, even when it’s inconvenient or requires expensive travel.

Let me know if this helps!


  1. Very helpful actually, especially the timing entry and the idea of "rewards". Hadn't thought of that meself! Better go watch that episode of Mad Men - after writing my journal entry of the day of course ;)

  2. Thanks for this one, Sarah! I agree with Claudine - the idea of timing is super helpful. I worry that for me, though, it wouldn't be as effective giving myself these rewards/punishments, but rather more consistent to have a third party reward/punish me.