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Dublin: 19 °C Tuesday 11 August, 2020

'Can you teach an old dog new tricks? You can, but not by week two of a new year'

One in four of us have already given up on our resolutions, but you need to make sure it’s achievable, writes Eoghan McDermott.

Eoghan McDermott

RESEARCH FROM THE University of Scranton says that one in four of us has given up on our new year’s resolutions after only seven days.

And also says that a mere 8% of us will achieve the goals that we set out at the start of the year.

Keeping a resolution is essentially a version of forming a new habit. New habits don’t get implanted in one week or two. Maxwell Maltz, author of the book, Psycho Cybernetics, claims it takes 21 days to form a habit.

Research from University College London discovered through a rigorous study into habit forming that the average is 66 days.

Resolutions don’t stick for a few reasons. The first is that the change that you want to make is too vague and general. “Grab your dreams” was one piece of New Year’s advice I read last week. What does that even mean? How can you do that? It’s a most impractical piece of drivel to say to anyone. If you want to change something, it should be specific and achievable.

Tell people you are going to do it this time

The second is that you’re simply not arsed to do it when the rubber hits the road. It feels good thinking about it, and telling people about them but when you actually go to do it, you’re not bothered. The value, or the desire just isn’t there. Another reason for not keeping them up could be you’re just not young enough.

The cliché “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” springs to mind. William James in his book The Principles of Psychology wrote that “in most of us, the character is set like a plaster and will never soften again”. This happens at around 25. And therefore it takes hard work and conscious effort and repetition, and more repetition to make a shift in behaviour stick for good.

Skills-building was described by psychologist Abraham Maslow as going through four phases. The first he called ‘unconscious incompetence’. This simply means that we are not aware that we need to work on a skill. Stage two is ‘conscious incompetence.’

At this stage we have identified what we need to work on. Stage three is ‘conscious competence,’ this is where we work and practice our skill. Finally comes stage four: unconscious competence. This happens after practicing and working on the skill every day. We don’t have to think about doing it. It comes naturally and is internalised.

That’s what happens to New Year resolutions when they’re picked sensibly and worked on, committedly. They become unconscious competence. Habits we don’t even have to think about.

A resolution that is achievable

If you want a resolution that has a clear benefit for you and those around you, that costs nothing, that’s easy(ish) to do and any age can do it, then I have one for you.

And it’s listening. Listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give to another person. Listening will make you a better friend, colleague, son, daughter. And it’s more doable than trying to “grab your dreams”.

Put away your phone, don’t feel the need to say your bit, shut up and listen. Don’t be distracted, don’t interrupt and be sure to remember what you’ve heard. When you really listen to someone you make them feel accepted, understood, valued and validated. Ernest Hemingway said “when people talk listen completely. Most people never listen”.

Give it a try. To really make this, or any of your resolutions actually stick you have to set a target of where you want to be at the end; then set daily or weekly targets for yourself; then aim at 1 March for the first major assessment of how you’re doing. If you can make it to March, you’re 75% of the way to turning a resolution into a habit.

Eoghan McDermott is a Director of The Communications Clinic and is Head of Training and Careers there. He is author of The Career Doctor. 

Read: How’s week one of your ‘get fit’ resolution going? These simple tips can make all the difference>

Read: Looking for a new job in the new year? Here’s how to get one>

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