A Primer on Achieving Your New Year’s Resolution

Since I was nine years old, I’ve identified a New Year’s Resolution every January 1st. My goals included both the simple to the more industrious:

– stop biting fingernails
– read 20 works of classic literature
– invent new flavor of gum
– catch, kill, clean and eat colossal fish
– pass Organic Chemistry II (age 19)
– pass Organic Chemistry II (age 20)
– pass Organic Chemistry II (age 21)
– reach puberty
– obtain fake I.D. (age 14)
– complete medical school in one year (+/- 3 years)
– master guitar playing (age 25)
– learn basics of guitar playing (age 26)
– stop using vulgarity in front of minors
– become a vegetarian
– circumnavigate New Jersey on a Vespa

Many of you may have shared similar goals in life. Who doesn’t want to be well-read or the world’s greatest fisherman or not chastised by an angry mother for having a “potty mouth?” The problem is, when it comes to behavior modification, we don’t really know how to change our behaviors for the long haul. That issue ceases right now.

Let’s use fingernail biting as an example (one I still grapple with). When eliminating a negative behavior, there are a series of steps that generate success:

1) Monitor the clearly defined behavior:

A good behavior modification program will not demand a change in behavior right off the bat. Instead, your first job is to develop a clear measure of the behavior and simply keep tabs on it. For fingernail biting, consider one “bite” as the moment your nail touches your lips or teeth. When that occurs, simply mark it down on paper, not in your head. There should be a written record of every instance of the behavior for each day. A simple checkmark will do for each day of the week. The good news: unless you are changing a behavior that has a definitive physiological dependence (e.g., chronic smoking), simply keeping tabs on the behavior will likely decrease the frequency of it. Awareness is one of the most powerful items in your psychology toolbox, and a written record of your progress always facilitates success.

2) Develop a reward system at multiple intervals

I consistently tell parents who are into corporal punishment that reward systems will invariably succeed over punishment models [1]. Your child will get better grades if he sees a video game attached to his superior report card as opposed to a beating for unacceptable grades. Adults are no different. Call it bribery if you want, but if you desire real behavioral change, you need to make it worth your while. And if “success” was a sufficient reward in and of itself at all times, bad habits simply wouldn’t exist because our internal drive would take over. Intrinsic motivation is ideal; unfortunately it’s not consistent enough to bring long-term change.

Rewards should be short, medium and long-term, no exceptions. Short-term rewards should be consumable: consider food, cash or time. When I (briefly) increased my exercise routine during graduate school, I gave myself extra cash out of my budget for whatever I wanted to spend it on. This reward was contingent on working out for 45-minutes each day. It was a nominal amount (so that I would burn through it quickly) and I spent it on things I couldn’t hoard (e.g., I would go to the movies, play golf, eat pricier food, etc.). The short-term reward drives you to achieve on a daily basis, but because it’s consumable, it won’t allow you to rest on your laurels.

Medium rewards should be more tangible items, but not things so worthwhile they retard or halt your motivation to continue. When I had a client who had a fear of large bodies of water, she rewarded herself with candy each day she placed a body part in her swimming pool. If she increased her weekly immersion of body mass over the course of one month (e.g., 3 days in week 1, 4 days in week 2, or perhaps getting ½ of her body in the water in week 1 and ¾ in week 2), she bought herself a DVD, a small piece of jewelry or a book. This gave her a feeling of accomplishment but also a desire to push ahead for more success.

Your long-term reward should be something set aside for complete success or a reasonable facsimile thereof (e.g., being able to float in the ocean for an hour, getting a D Minus in Organic Chemistry, learning enough guitar chords to play Smells Like Teen Spirit). When someone is able to eliminate a behavior like fingernail biting altogether, there should be a light at the end of the tunnel for that person. It should be identified before the project even starts and should be at the high end of budgetary constraints. I’ve had clients take vacations contingent on their success, buy new plasma television sets and even new wardrobes. You’re only limited by your imagination. If finances are an issue, consider a party with your friends, a weekend(s) pass to simply relax or purchasing a trophy or plaque to commemorate your success.

3) Plan Your Interventions

This topic is difficult to concisely describe (hence this post being labeled a “primer”) because every behavior has a different method of intervention. For example, with fingernail biting, one technique to utilize when an urge to bite strikes or a nail reaches the mouth is to sit down, grab tightly onto the arms of a chair, sides of a table or even one’s thighs and picture the nails growing outward, healthy and clean. People will hold this position for as long as possible for the urge to end. For the woman with the water phobia, as she entered the pool, she envisioned her heart rate slowing to a complete resting state as she floating in the clear, blue water. Those averse to exercise picture themselves coming out of the gym, buff and glistening, a runner’s high pulsating through their veins. Passing Organic Chemistry for the non-gifted involved not only some basic intelligence that I do not possess, but also finding a study partner or simply confining oneself to the student lounge or fraternity house basement for one hour per day. In short, there are countless interventions designed to get people to blink, to jump off the foundation of status quo. You simply have to find yours.

4) Maintenance

Old habits die hard, so plan on completing these steps multiple times over your life. I had completely obliterated my nail-biting habit in graduate school, only to have it return later. I incessantly read classic literature for months on end, only to drop it altogether for years. Certain behaviors (or lack thereof) may never come naturally and that needs to be accepted. Once that occurs it is much easier to commit to methodical change over the course of one’s life.

That’s behavior modification in a nutshell. There are subtle nuances that need to be implemented (check out any book on behavior modification techniques for more on this) depending on what you want to accomplish, but the principles remain intact.

Now get out there and change something about yourself that sucks.

[1] I had a client donate $50 to the Republican party every time she drunk-dialed her ex-boyfriend. She was a hard-core liberal. After a few checks were written the behavior ceased, so I’ll concede there are some exceptions to the rule.

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13 Responses to “A Primer on Achieving Your New Year’s Resolution”

  1. Dorothy says:

    The other thing that really works in my opinion is to tell as many people as possible and to ask a few trusted ones to ask you how it’s going once in a while.
    Facebook and twitter are great for this too, because you get to announce your resolution to hundreds of people and though most of them don’t care if you don’t actually keep your resolution (because then, it will also get them off the hook of keeping theirs), it’s still very effective if you are someone who has integrity.
    Great tips Dr Rob, thanks !

  2. Rob Dobrenski says:

    @ Dorothy: agreed, although some researchers are concluding that telling many people doesn’t influence results. Before I knew that I wrote about the notion of sharing here:


  3. Tracie says:

    It sometimes helps to eliminate negative behaviors if you can make it difficult to complete the behavior. The circumstances in which this technique works can be pretty limited but hey, whatever gets the job done, right? When I was quitting smoking I would lock my cigarettes in a file cabinet in my office and tape the key behind a picture frame. Each time I wanted to smoke, I had to get the key, unlock the drawer, get the cigarettes, go outside…it became such a pain in the ass to actually get to the cigarettes that I usually just said “screw it” and let my laziness win. I’ve heard of people freezing their credit cards into blocks of ice and using similar tactics to get over bad habits.
    Congratulations on (eventually) getting that D-. O-chem is probably the biggest reason I’m not a veterinarian today. 😀

  4. Miss Ryn says:

    I am currently taking a Health Behavior course for my MPH program and have been tasked with developing or undeveloping a behavior for one month. I screwed up my SI joint a couple years back playing volleyball, so it gets really stiff/sore if I sit for too long; pretty much a requirement for any Masters program, cursed journal articles. My behavior is to workout everyday. This can be as simple as 20-minute pilates dvds or running 3 miles; just getting my stiff joints moving. As a reward, for every 5 days I workout consecutively I get to spend $30 on something for my deck garden. At the end of one consecutive month I am buying my overpriced Weber grille. So a) I get my ass in gear, and b) I get to indulge myself with minimal guilt over the price of the grille because I’ve “earned” it. I’m on day 7, and two large terra cota planters richer.

  5. Anonymous says:

    A good read. You made my morning coffee more enjoyable.

  6. Jack says:

    “catch, kill, clean and eat colossal fish” OK, is this for real? I’m up for it if you’re serious

  7. Jbonymo says:

    I had a large problem with chewing my nails when I was younger. My parents tried everything and none of it worked — I even came to like the taste of the fingernail paints which are designed to make them taste bad. . . or at least I convinced myself I liked the taste. I don’t recall ever being offered a reward for not biting my nails, but that’s not fair to my parents, because I sure wasn’t going to be a reliable source on the issue, and they can’t have watched me 24/7. What it ended up taking was me getting braces. I haven’t habitually bitten my nails since then. Something about the part where it hurt quite a lot to do so stopped me. . . .

    As for rewards, these days I buy myself books and movies if I manage to get on a stage without pissing myself, and it’s working. As for exercise routines, like Miss Ryn has, I need to figure myself out an inexpensive college-student-budget reward model. I go in cycles: a month of exercise and getting toned, and a month of losing it all to the flab; the flab seems to be my motivation.

  8. Adam says:

    This reminds me of my Organic Chemistry II final. I calculated I needed 19% to pass the course with 50.1%. And I wouldn’t have cared if I got one percent more than that. Fun times. I studied so much I started seeing Carbon bonds in every corner of my room and open door.

    One of my preferred rewards was to go running and drink a beer immediately upon returning to my apartment from the run. Felt good, tasted good, and the beer actually hits you harder and better after exercise. Well, that and I was preparing for basic training, so I was extremely motivated to be in good shape. Worked.

  9. sandy says:

    All good points. Especially the part about good habits won’t always come easy and may be a struggle life long. Sometimes we just have to accept that it’s going to be something we’ll need to work on lifelong.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Found this blog through google, great work man!

  11. cosmetology says:

    Any follow up pieces to this coming?

  12. Thanks for the Information, thanks for this fine Post. I will come back later .. Great tips also : toddler biting

  13. […] Why am I lazy? -cg PS: If anyone wants tips on how to beat laziness, check out Dr. Rob’s blog post on behaviour modification. Good […]