Keeping Your Resolutions – An Expert’s Guide

Psychology research is making a fool out of books like The Secret, which say that thinking positively and focusing your mind on your goals will miraculously have them materialize. So how can we best use the workings of our minds to make New Year’s resolutions a reality in 2015?

Peter Gollwitzer PhotoWe have turned to the renowned Professor of Psychology, Social Psychology and Motivation, Peter Gollwitzer. As one of the world’s leading authorities on goal attainment and motivation, he certainly knows a “secret” or two about how to achieve your New Year’s resolutions. Without further ado, here are 5 invaluable tips based on what he had to say.

1. The Secret is not enough

Gollwitzer: “Traditionally, the psychology of motivation has focused on motivating people to make strong goal commitments. It was assumed that if people manage to strongly commit to their goals, the likelihood will be really high that they actually reach their goals. However, in the last 15 to 20 years, researchers have been arguing that people can do more than merely commit to goals – they can also use their minds to strategically improve the striving for their goals.”

2. Turn goal planning into action with “if-then” plans

Planning is paramount if you want to achieve your New Year’s resolutions. Be it breaking or creating habits like quitting smoking and starting regular exercise, or any other goal you can imagine. Hundreds of studies support the use of if-then planning, also known as implementation intentions, as making such plans can double or even triple your chances of success.

It’s insanely simple yet undeniably one of the most effective ways to ensure goal success. If-then plans specify when, where and how you will take specific actions to reach your goal. For example, if your goal was to lose weight, an if-then plan might be: If I get late evening sugar cravings at home, then I will have a cup of calming tea with a teaspoon of honey.

Gollwitzer: “When you link the when and the where to the how using an if-then statement, you get a more reliable goal attainment effect. This is because strong links between the situation and response are created in your mind, which usually only originate through effortful learning, failing and repeating things. But you can prepare such links in your mind… you consciously spell out an if (critical situation) – then (constructive response) plan. As a consequence, encountering the critical situation will automatically elicit the goal-directed specified response.”

3. Make the most of if-then plans with mental contrasting

Gollwitzer: “There is a new book, Rethinking Positive Thinking by Gabriele Oettingen. Get it, because at the end of the book there is a large section on how to best form implementation intentions, using a method called mental contrasting to find the critical situations and then link them to instrumental goal-directed responses.

This method is also explained in a free app she recently developed. The app is called WOOP, short for WishOutcomeObstaclePlan, discussed recently in the New York Times. It’s free and very easy to use as it is explained by referring to many examples.”

4. Motivation and emotion make things happen

Gollwitzer: “I always say ‘watch out!’, as motivation needs to be in place. Without it being in place you are not going to have those if-then plan effects. If you only have the means, e.g. a hammer, this will not guarantee you will put your pictures on the wall if you are not motivated to do so.”

Especially for year-long goals that require you to keep at it through thick and thin, you won’t get far without fueling your motivational fires along the way. Don’t forget about the goal associated with your if-then plans. If successfully following through with an if-then plan does not provide motivation in and of itself, monetary “prizes” for reaching key points on the road to goal achievement have also been shown to pave a smoother road to success.

Similarly, emotion, which is integral to motivational brain circuitry, can strongly influence the effectiveness of if-then plans. While such research is in its infancy, the stirring up of strong emotions when forming if-then plans can markedly increase your chances of goal attainment.

Gollwitzer: “Emotions that are associated with a lot of excitement and arousal, like joy, surprise and anger are of particular importance. Focusing on anger in our research, we learned anger can aid forming stronger implementation intentions as well as enacting them. If your boss is nasty to you, you are angry, and the more readily you form if-then plans, and the better you are at acting on these plans: “If I see him today, then I will immediately tell him that he was insulting.” You see him, you are angry, and boom… the if-then plan is implemented.

“However, if-then plans are flexible as they are created and acted upon in the context of a person’s ultimate goals. For instance, the person who wants to complain to her boss also has the goal of not losing her job, so she will make sure that she won’t push things too far. Or, if another colleague in a meetings says to the boss “don’t be so cynical,” that person has already enacted your plan so you don’t have to do it anymore … you’re not a robot, your plans are in the service of your goals. Your superordinate goals take care of these things, they look out for you!”

5. Beware of how you use self-defining goals

Gollwitzer: “People can also strive for a self-defining goal, like being a great parent or scientist for example. In this case, simply describing to others what one intends to do to reach these goals does already create a sense of goal completion. Funny thing is that you pay a price for that, your motivation goes down.”

Being a good parent or partner, or becoming an amateur cyclist or musician, are all examples of self-defining goals that unlike goals that typically end up on your daily to do list, are important in defining your self-identity.

Try to avoid casually announcing your self-defining intentions to people who won’t hold you accountable if you fail to achieve them. That social recognition and pat on the back you are likely to receive simply from communicating your intentions can lead to a feeling of completeness that saps away at your motivation, as if you have already embodied what you had hoped to become.

So, please say no to wacky blind optimism and instead start your morning by addressing your if-thens in order to direct the challenges and opportunities the day provides towards effectively achieving your New Year’s resolutions this 2015!


Gollwitzer, P. M. (2014) Weakness of the will: Is a quick fix possible? Motivation and Emotion, 38, 305-322.

Gollwitzer, P. M., and Oettingen, G. (2013). Implementation intentions. In M. Gellman and J. R. Turner (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine (pp. 1043-1048). New York: Springer-Verlag.

Gollwitzer, P. M., and Oettingen, G. (2011). Planning promotes goal striving. In K. D. Vohs and R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications. (2nd Ed., pp. 162-185.). New York, London: The Guilford Press.

Gollwitzer, P., Sheeran, P., Michalski, V., & Seifert, A. (2009). When Intentions Go Public: Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-Behavior Gap? Psychological Science, 20 (5), 612-618 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02336.x

Maglio, S., Gollwitzer, P., & Oettingen, G. (2014). Emotion and control in the planning of goals Motivation and Emotion, 38 (5), 620-634 DOI: 10.1007/s11031-014-9407-4

Oettingen, G. (2014). Rethinking positive thinking: Inside the new science of motivation. Penguin.

Image via Sondem / Shutterstock.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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