Hack Your New Year’s Resolution

Small successes can lead to setting loftier goals, but the trick is to build on each success to get there, rather than trying to achieve too much too soon.

Small successes can lead to setting loftier goals, but the trick is to build on each success to get there, rather than trying to achieve too much too soon.

It's that time of year when we reflect on the past and look ahead to the future. On one hand, this makes sense: The calendar year ends and a new year begins. What better time to make resolutions? On the other hand, it seems a bit arbitrary to make important life and work goals based on a date chosen by the pope in 1582 to be the first day of the year.

Research has shown that New Year’s Resolutions don’t work for most people, but just barely. According to a 2002 study by John C. Norcross and his psychology colleagues at the University of Scranton, people who made resolutions were more likely to make progress toward achieving goals than those who didn’t. 

Jamie Gooch

For six months, the study followed 159 resolvers and 123 people who wanted to solve a problem but didn’t make a New Year’s resolution. By July, only 4% of the control group had made progress toward their goals, while 44% of the resolvers had kept their resolutions. Of course, that means most (46%) resolvers had not, but that’s a glass half empty perspective. The study indicates that making a resolution can help you progress toward a goal 10x more than not making one.

Start Small

With all of the big changes happening in design engineering and manufacturing today, you may be tempted to set your goals accordingly. Everything from the industrial Internet of Things, to 5G connectivity, to artificial intelligence to advanced simulation seem to be here or right around the corner and require new design knowledge and skills to keep pace. 

These are big disruptions to be sure, but psychology tells us that starting small is a better way to address them. To achieve change requires creating new habits. Making grand resolutions that your habits can’t support leads to failure. One hack is to fool ourselves into creating small, incremental changes that become habits and then eventually lead to bigger changes.

So, instead of resolving to finally implement a full product lifecycle management solution in 2019, maybe just make it a point to collaborate more with your colleagues, add more information to your models that will help people further along the digital thread, or better manage your data. Instead of resolving to go back to school to get another degree, maybe resolve to take a course in programming, finite element analysis or design for additive manufacturing. Small successes can lead to setting loftier goals, but the trick is to build on each success to get there, rather than trying to achieve too much too soon.

Another way to engineer yourself to keep your resolutions is to share your goals. Research shows that telling people about your goals can help you stick with them. Committing to something like professional training, where you tell your supervisor your intentions, or improving your standard operating procedure on model annotation and markup, where others will notice if you slip up, can help. Just like personal trainers are more effective than a gym membership alone, having someone hold you to your resolution, or at least be in your corner, can help you keep it. 

Start Often 

In the Norcross study, more than a third (36%) of resolvers had broken their New Year’s resolutions by the end of January, and half had given up by March. So maybe one solution is to recognize more than one New Year. In England and Colonial America (who didn’t want the Catholic Church telling them when to start the year) the official first day of the year was March 25 until 1752. So, if you find your resolve waning around March, just re-up your resolution on March 25, or on April Fool’s Day if that helps remind you that it would be foolish to quit. 

But seriously, if you’re one of the majority of people who break resolutions, then operating on the idea of continual improvement—rather than a single resolution on an arbitrary date—could be the answer. Either way, it’s important to track your progress. This has proven effective in calorie-counting apps, financial planning and general to-do lists. Just like in engineering, a successful outcome depends on data.

You can’t track progress until you set the goal, and the New Year is as good a time as any to start. Whatever those goals are, we wish you a happy, and productive, New Year.

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About the Author

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Jamie Gooch

Jamie Gooch is the former editorial director of Digital Engineering.

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