New year, new you (or not)

A willpower psychologist explains why last year's resolutions may have gone up in smoke.

Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is the author of the forthcoming The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Since she literally wrote the book on resolutions, we asked her to contribute a guest post. Here, she makes the case for thinking small when it comes to your 2012 goals:

No matter how many times we've failed in the past, New Year’s resolutions stay popular — because resolving to change offers an immediate sense of control. Making a resolution fills us with hope. We fantasize about the person we will become, and imagine our lives transformed. And the effect is immediate: studies show that just deciding to start a diet makes people feel stronger, and merely planning to exercise makes people feel taller.

The bigger the goal, the bigger the burst of hope. So when we decide to change, it’s tempting to give ourselves some very large assignments. Why set a modest goal when a gigantic goal will make us feel even better? Why start small when you can dream big?

Unfortunately, grandiose resolutions make us feel good in the moment, but set us up for failure. The decision to change is the ultimate instant gratification — you get all the good feelings before anything’s been done. But the challenge of actually making a change can be a rude awakening. As you face your first setback, the initial feel-good rush is replaced with disappointment, frustration and self-doubt. At this point, most people will abandon their efforts altogether.

The best way to make a resolution stick is to dream big, but start small. And you have to know what is at the core of the thing you really want — health, happiness, financial security, freedom. Research shows that when you identify the deepest motivation for a change, you’ll be more committed to your goal and less likely to give up. You’ll also be more likely to recognize how small, every day choices — what you put on your plate for lunch or whether you push yourself 10 percent more at the gym — can help you realize your dream.

But you have to be willing to start small. Sometimes we get frustrated when we don’t know exactly how we’ll reach our goals. We can’t imagine how what we’re doing now will ever get us where we want. Or we try to take huge steps all at once and end up exhausted and overwhelmed.

If you really want your resolution to stick, give yourself permission to take the smallest conceivable steps toward your goal. As long as it’s more than you’re doing today, it’s moving you in the right direction. Each small step should be consistent with your big dream: One more vegetable a day or one more push-up before you give up.

The secret of starting small is that your first steps don’t have to be enough. The process of just getting started is what makes the bigger steps possible. When the small steps are easy and have become second nature, you’ll be ready for the next step, and you'll still have the energy and motivation to keep going.

Read onfor more words of wisdom on willpower.