We’re almost at that time of year to make resolutions for 2019. The majority of my audience is focused on this:

Doing what it takes to achieve the work-life synergy they want in 2019. Because despite good intentions, we don’t always act on our goals.

The Brutal Facts

In a few short months, we’ll be at the time of year that most of us will have abandoned our resolutions…again.

Until next year, when 60% of people who fail will make the same resolution all over again! Some of us will live on repeat with these resolutions five times before succeeding.

Why? Because we’re biased when it comes to ourselves!

  1. We think we can achieve more than is feasible.
  2. We think it will be quicker and easier than is realistic.
  3. We remember feeling good as we made progress before and bring false hope to why it will be different this year.
  4. We think we’re better than average (statistically impossible) and overestimate our positive traits (so we don’t take in negative feedback that could improve our approach…or our goal-setting).

How can you crack this brutal cycle and act on your intentions long enough to actually succeed this year?

The first step is simple. We tend to be more accurate predicting someone else’s behavior than our own. Accept your bias and know it predicts your failure. Ask a friend to help you achieve your goals this year.

The Science of Change

The science of achieving goals is about the processes we use to direct our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to achieve them…or not. Unpacking the disconnect (often called the intention-action gap) gets in the way of perfectly good intentions.

Here’s the good news. Science isn’t always overly complex. It can be clear and instructional too. Learning how the different parts of the process work will help set you up for success in your chosen career-life goals. So, let’s do the science bit together.

The Best of Intentions

Want to know the single biggest predictor of whether you’ll actually achieve your goals? Your intention.

Research shows intentions only translate into action about 50% of the time. So, intentions are not everything that’s going on.

The other 50% – called the intention-behavior gap – is the subject of much research. And that gap is where most of our New Year Resolutions fail.

Intuitively, it feels like some people are better at doing what it takes to achieve their goals than others. You know them when you meet them. They’re self-disciplined, forward-thinking, motivated, and resilient sorts. Achieving goals comes down to this mix of traits, skills and abilities, all working to drive what we do and how we act.

Do you think you are good self-regulation? Do you stick to your goals with determination? Test it out for yourself. Objectively.

Those who overestimate their self-control skills are setting themselves up for failure as they set their career-life goals.

Here are two questions that will give you insight into different areas of self-regulation.

  1. How gritty are you? Try Angela Duckworth’s Grit Scale. This is about sticking to a longer-term goal and not abandoning it. This is good news for people with work-life synergy goals – the world of work is where self-control has its strongest impact.
  2. Self-control. How much do you have? This is about whether you can control your impulses in the face of in-the-moment temptations that conflict with your overall goal! It may not surprise you that our eating habits and weight-loss goals are where we’re weakest, despite strong intentions.

So, what’s going wrong here? The scientific studies point at a few things:

  1. Missing the Moment! Even delays of five seconds can see people forget to act as intended during a really demanding task. Relate that to work. You’re absorbed and deeply focused on what needs to be done and/or said. So, you forget that thing you decided you want but don’t normally do … ‘til the moment has passed, along with its window of opportunity to do something different, something you fully intended to act on. 
  2. Giving up too soon. Grit is great when it’s pointed at the right goal. I have written before about how grit has a dark power when employed for the wrong reasons. But to be clear, for resolutions, we need grit. Without it, we give up too early. And there’s so many points that may seem ok…unless we’re gritty. When different desires compete. When barriers turn up that we didn’t see coming. When our emotions derail us. When we’re spreading ourselves too thin. When we run out of willpower.

What About If-Then?

So, we give up because we feel we must. In that moment. But we mustn’t. Not when it matters.

Awareness of our bias. Looking objectively about what levels of self-control and grit we have built in. Understanding why good goals fall down the intention-action gap. These will all help.

But there’s more to the science of self-regulation. There is a way to navigate those threats and stay on track. A way that closes the intention-action gap.

If-Then plans (or implementation-intentions)

Think of these as very specific self-instructions linking a situation relevant to your goal to a goal-directed response so you have a short-cut all thought out and don’t miss the moment to act. The when, where, how, and what you will do in pursuit of your specific goal.

It’s time to think about your own work-life goal using this template. Getting as specific as humanly possible, come up with some if-then plans to help you succeed.

IF: a good opportunity to act shows up – or an obstacle or threat triggers action…

THEN: …your goal-response is initiated. A specific behavior, doing something in a    certain way, stating a boundary or ignoring something / feelings without de-railing.

Don’t skimp on this task. Remember these If-Then Plans significantly increase your chances of achieving your goal.

Mirror, Mirror on The Wall; Show The Truth About My Goal

There is one big problem with If-Then plans…

They won’t work for people who aren’t committed to the goal! 

And ‘thinking positive’ can backfire. There are studies that show those with the most positive thoughts, images, and fantasies about their goals were the least successful.

Why? Because while positive expectations boost our motivation, fantasies take it too far. They trick the brain to thinking the work is done and kill motivation to achieve the goal in real life!

WOOP and all your wishes will be fulfilled

WOOP is an evidence-based mental strategy that people can use to boost their commitment and change their habits. With more than 20 years of research, WOOP has been proven to work.

WOOP stands for:

  1. Wish
  2. Outcome
  3. Obstacle
  4. Plan

Known scientifically as Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions, WOOP balances positive thinking about our goals, by thinking through the obstacles that might stand in our way of achieving them. We need these negatives. Then commitment dials up.  As do rates of success.

So now you know, the four letters that spell success are WOOP.

WOOP and you too, shall fulfill your career-life wishes this year!

Helen Hanison is an executive coach. She helps professionals at a career crossroads to make a plan aligning work that they love with the life they want to lead. Then act on it. If you feel ready to talk first steps, email her here. She can also be found online at on her blog and on Facebook.




Image courtesy of Juliette Leufke.