The resolution is key: the “when-then” principle

Professor Julia Schüler, Assistant Professor of Sport and Health at the Institute of Sport Science in Bern, explains how you can apply the “when-then” principle to stick to your resolutions.

Professor Schüler, why do so many people abandon their New Year’s resolutions after only a few weeks?

There are studies showing that 60% of resolutions never translate into action. In most cases this is because they’re not formulated in specific enough terms, and people don’t make a concrete plan of action based on the “when-then” principle.

For example, the resolution “In future I want to exercise as regularly as possible” won’t work. But you could formulate the same resolution in “when-then” terms. It would be something like: “When it’s Wednesday evening, then I’ll go jogging with my neighbour.”

This increases the chance that it will become a force of habit. Scientists call this physiological correlates in the brain. As soon as the “when” signal applies, you act automatically. This means it takes less effort to put your resolution into action, because you don’t have to think about whether you should or shouldn’t do it.The “when” automatically triggers action.

“There are studies showing that 60% of resolutions never translate into action.”
Prof. Dr. Julia Schüler

Which work best, long or short-term targets?

The advantage of short-term targets (for example 3 months) is that they can be achieved more quickly and are more easily measured. But you’ll only bring about lasting changes in your behaviour if you set long-term goals (for example a year). Only after around six months can you talk of a certain level of adherence. In other words, it shows that the person has a real intention and a concrete plan of action to bring about a lasting change in their behaviour.It makes sense to reach your long-term goal via a series of consecutive short-term goals, for example an “when-then” plan for three months. After three months you review your target and adjust it if necessary.

“‘All or nothing’ doesn’t apply to sport and exercise.”
Prof. Dr. Julia Schüler

What do you do if your motivation starts tailing off?

It’s really important to prepare for declining motivation, growing resistance and setbacks. You can also do this with the “when-then” principle. You think about what could happen, and your alternatives for responding if it does. For example:

  • “When the weather’s bad, then I’ll postpone training by a maximum of 24 hours.”
  • “When my partner tries to prevent me training by inviting me out to dinner, then I’ll invite him to train with me and then go out for dinner afterwards.”
  • “When I’m ill, then I’ll resume training at the latest two days after I fully recover.”
  • “When I notice that I’m losing motivation, then I’ll promise myself a special reward if I keep going for another month (e.g. a spa treatment or massage).”

It’s important to reward yourself and give yourself a boost. You should also be forgiving with yourself and not give up completely if you suffer a setback. “All or nothing” doesn’t apply to sport and exercise. Any exercise is better than no exercise at all.

Can you also schedule exceptions?

Of course. In fact you should from the outset. For example in your mind you could grant yourself three exceptions for the next three months. But here too, “if-then” also applies: “If I’ve used up my three exceptions, then I don’t have any more in reserve and must do every training session.” Or you could formulate it the other way round, positively: “If I haven’t granted myself more than one exception, then I'll treat myself to a new sports shirt.”

What’s your motivation type?

The achiever

This type of person is ambitious, achievement-driven and sets high goals. They want to measure themselves, compete (for example in a marathon) and always get better; they need incentives such as training plans and graphs tracking their performance and progress. For these people, sports like athletics where performance can be measured are good. They’re more likely to choose individual sports where it’s only about their own performance.

The socialiser

These people like being with other people and are looking to connect – both during sport, and through sport. Their social life and contacts are important to their happiness. Friendship and being together are more important than achievement. In most cases they even perform better as part of a team than alone. All types of team sports are suitable for these people.

The leader

This type of person can best express themselves leading, guiding and influencing a team. They like to take responsibility. They’re motivated by having to lead a training session. They make good team captains, coaches and trainers. They’re competitive, and like showing their strength with their team in competitions.

Prof. Dr. Julia Schüler
Assistant Professor of Sport and Health at the Institute of Sport Science in Bern, specialised in motivational psychology