New Year's Resolutions or How to Make Changes Stick?

As we approach the end of a year and the beginning of a new one, it’s typical and traditional to reflect on the year past (see blog post) and to set goals and resolutions for the new one. 

I recently read Everybody wants to love their job - Rebuilding Trust and Culture by Marylene Delbourg-Delphis, an insightful guidebook to building the 21st century workplace, and it reminded me of the four critical psychological secrets of achieving your New Year’s resolutions. According to British psychologist Richard Wiseman, they are:

  • setting S.M.A.R.T goals: “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time based.”

  • using the carrot not the stick

  • going public

  • being persistent

This list sounds reasonable, right? And with the support of a friend, an accountability partner and a mind jogger app, it should be relatively easy to do so. But why is it then, that according to Wiseman, one year later, only 12 percent of the people he tracked had achieved their goal of losing weight, visiting the gym, quitting smoking or drinking less? Why is change so difficult for most of us?

According to Ronald Heifetz, a colleague of Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow who co-authored Immunity to Change - How to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organization, it depends on whether the kind of change challenge you are trying to solve is a technical one or an adaptative one for you. Heifetz distinguishes between these two kinds of change challenges as follows: a technical challenge is called technical because the skill set necessary to perform the complicated behaviors is well known. On the other hand, he states that “an adaptative challenge can only be solved by transforming your mindset, by advancing to a more sophisticated stage of mental development.” Einstein said it very elegantly: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

In their book Immunity to ChangeRobert Kegan and Lisa Laskow introduce the concept of immunity to change as the current limits of our own mental complexity as we try to formulate and solve a problem adaptively. They talk about hidden competing commitments impeding the achievement of the visible commitment. They write: “when we make a New Year’s resolution, we look at the behaviors we want to extinguish as bad; we look at the behaviors we want to amplify as good. But until we understand the commitments that make the obstructive behaviors at the same time brilliantly effective, we haven’t correctly formulated the problem”. The authors talk about an immune system (and they use the medical metaphor very intentionally), describing it as an “extraordinarily intelligent force that elegantly protects us, to save our lives. Every immunity to change can be seen as an asset and a source of strength for that person.” And working against our own immune system is extremely hard.

To illustrate this point, let’s take the example of losing weight as a New Year’s Resolution, or visible commitment to use Kegan and Laskow’s language. Behaviors that work against that goal of losing weight are (from the book): 

  • I eat too much

  • I eat when I am not hungry

  • I eat food with too much fat

  • I eat food with too much carbohydrate

The hidden competing commitments (the immunity system working against achieving the goal) will vary from person to person. For Person A, a hidden commitment could be “I am committed to not being bored, to feeling stimulated and energized. I am committed to not feeling empty.” For Person B, it could be “I am committed to feeling well connected to my people, to receiving love when it’s offered to me.” And Person C could have a competing commitment of not wanting to be seen and therefore related to as a sexual object. For each of these individuals, losing weight is an adaptive change challenge, but for each a different adaptive challenge. None of them is likely to succeed by dieting alone. The route to success for each will be different because each person’s immune system is unique. (Psychologists refer to the hidden competing commitments as secondary gains, i.e., a hidden benefit or positive purpose of the current situation, preventing you, may be without you being conscious of it, from making the change that you are seeking.)

So, understanding the self-limiting beliefs which contribute to your hidden competing commitments is key to overcoming an adaptive change challenge and therefore keeping your New Year’s Resolution.

Most people need a structure to help them channel their aspiration, test and gain distance from their big assumptions, and steadily build a new set of ways to bridge the gap between intentions and behavior. You may want to consider getting a life coach to guide you through this transition time, so you can gain insights, receive accountability and follow-up in a supportive and transformational personal relationship.

If you are interested in starting a (New Beginnings) Coaching Program in the new year, I currently offer a promotional 10% discount if you enroll before January 20, 2019. You can contact me at or schedule the free consultation through my website, Remember to mention the code NEWYEAR to receive the discount.

Best wishes for the holidays! May the New Year bring you the growth that you have been seeking.

Warmly, Anne-Marie