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Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

Here’s How to Start Your New Year on the Right Foot

A step-by-step guide to making your resolutions a reality—and helping your students do the same
By Angela Duckworth — January 04, 2023 1 min read
What's the biggest mistake people make about New Year's resolutions?
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What’s the biggest mistake people make about New Year’s resolutions?

To be successful, people think they need more willpower when in fact they need a plan. Here’s something I wrote about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

My guess is that you, like most American adults, have at least one New Year’s resolution.

But resolving to change, however fervently you wish to do so, is no guarantee that you’ll actually follow through.

Why not?

One reason is that most goals cannot be accomplished all at once and on the spot. You need a way to bridge your current intentions with your future actions. And contrary to popular belief, you don’t need more willpower. Instead, you need a strategy.

Decades of research by NYU professor Gabriele Oettingen and colleagues on how children and adults turn intentions into actions have culminated in a four-step strategy called WOOP—an acronym that stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan.

Let me walk you through WOOP using my New Year’s resolution as an example.

Wish: Exercise five times per week.

This goal is challenging yet feasible. I’m reliably exercising on Saturdays and Sundays but only twice (at most) on weekdays.

Outcome: Get a great night’s sleep more consistently.

I sleep better on days when I’ve worked out.

Obstacle: My mornings are busy. And I hate working out in the evening.

Most weekdays, I make breakfast and then I have scheduled phone calls and meetings for work.

Plan: When it’s 8 a.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, I’ll go for a run.

The final step in WOOP can take the longest. I started with the idea that I’d wake up at 5 a.m. to exercise. Then I realized this schedule conflicted with my goal of getting more sleep! Ultimately, I decided to move my work commitments to start at 9 a.m. three days a week.

Don’t assume that self-control means relying on old-fashioned willpower.

Do WOOP your New Year’s resolutions! Ask yourself, “What holds me back?” And then think of a strategy. In the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: A goal without a plan is just a wish.

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