New Year, New Improved Me Why Incremental Change is More Realistic Than a Complete Rebrand

20th January 2016

Posted In: The Topic
New Year New Me

How many of us remember the commitments we made to ourselves just over a month ago? The one about becoming the ‘new and improved’ versions of ourselves. According to a Psychology Today article referring to the researcher John Norcoss, about 50% of us will have made resolutions in January – not just this year but previous New Years as well.

Words: Nneka Orji

From picking up a new skill and reducing stress levels, to weight loss by various means and others (see Google searches the week before and the week after New Year); we all vow to be better than we were last year in an effort to be “out with the old, in with the new”.

However despite our vocalised commitments and best efforts, not many of us achieve our goals by the end of the year. According to a survey conducted by the University of Scranton, only 8% of people keep their resolution for the full year. For the remaining 92% of us, it’s a ritual we repeat year in year out with little change. How can it be that despite our best intentions, we find ourselves in this cycle?

To understand how we break the cycle and successfully embark on the self-improvement journey, we should first take a step back to understand why we make resolutions and set goals.



While our individual motivations will differ, most of us set goals or resolutions as part of our ambition to do better and fulfil our potential. The psychologist, Abraham Maslow, saw self-improvement as one of the key elements of what he termed ‘self-actualisation’ – the idea of living one’s true potential (at the top of the hierarchy of needs). Implicit in the word ‘improvement’, the journey to self-actualisation is an ongoing effort of identifying and working on aspects of ourselves, which we, or others, believe could be improved.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman present the results of their study that highlights how age and gender affect self-improvement. The participants of the survey who were asked about how they react to various forms of feedback, could be placed in one of two groups – “proving” or “improving”.

Those in the “proving” group were less likely to admit to the need for self-improvement, compared to the 83% of participants in the “improving” group who actively sought feedback and opportunities to develop. (Note that the authors’ caveat the survey was positioned as a self-assessment and earlier studies by other researchers indicated the percentage of those with a “growth mindset” was about 40%.)

In addition to showing that the majority of us are (or at least would classify ourselves as) “improving”, the authors found that both men and women move from “proving” to “improving” with age and increasing self-confidence. However, more women tend to demonstrate “proving” characteristics – something the authors concede may be due to the “prove it again” bias that women are sometimes subject to.

At the beginning of each year, or sometimes at other points in the year such as the start of a new financial year, this desire to improve manifests itself in a reaffirmation of our existing goals or New Year’s resolutions. We start with best intentions but soon find ourselves with a depleted well of enthusiasm, meaning that many of us aren’t able to make the leap forward we hope to achieve. So how do we make sure we maximise our chances of success?


Incremental change

The simple answer: rather than trying to completely rebrand ourselves by addressing all improvement opportunities within the year, we are more likely to succeed if we make incremental changes by taking small but deliberate steps on our journey to self-actualisation.

Although psychologist Karl Weick developed his “small wins” paper with a focus on large-scale social problems, the strategy of “small wins”, can be applied at the individual level. Weick argued that by changing how we view problems, or in this case opportunities for improvement, we can be more successful in resolving the problems.

To avoid being overwhelmed or discouraged by the distance we need to cover to achieve our goals, we can apply “small wins” strategy by breaking down the journey into more attainable parts. Committing to a full rebrand is unrealistic in a short time frame, but more importantly, is most likely unnecessary.

Rather than put your effort into rebranding and creating a “new” you by the end of this year, why not decide on where in your self-improvement journey you would like to reach?

Here are three tips that may help you make this year’s resolution a reality.


From resolution to reality

Tip #1: Look ahead…but also look back

“What’s done is done. Look ahead now – no point looking back.” Sound familiar?

In our haste on this journey of self-improvement and in the busy lives we lead, we sometimes rush into setting goals and making resolutions without first looking back at our achievements and also lessons learned from the past year. Before launching into new goals and commitments, we should invest time in understanding where we are on the self-improvement journey; which actions we need to take in the next phase; and how we can commit to these given the many distractions and uncertainties ahead.

Take the time to pause and write down your key achievements from the preceding year (and continue to do so during the year). What went well and what are you most proud of? This is particularly important for women who tend to suffer more from the imposter syndrome.

Looking forward is important, but reviewing the past year can remind you that you have already gone some way in achieving your goal, as well as identify opportunity areas for the following year.


Tip #2: Be ambitious…but remember the R in SMART

The aforementioned Psychology Today article refers to “false hope syndrome” – making overly ambitious and sometimes unrealistic resolutions, only to be disappointed when we don’t achieve them. Unfortunately many of us set ourselves up for failure even before we start.

While there is an advantage to setting ambitious targets, the reality is that the development journey is continuous. A number of us will have come across SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound) goals and objectives, which stem from Peter Drucker’s Management by Objectives. Being realistic will be a key factor in your ability to stick to your resolution and meet your goal.


Tip #3: Commit…but fine tune along the way

Putting a plan in place is an important part of committing to your resolution. It’s all too easy to have a vague idea of how to get there, but without a clear plan we risk not making as much progress as we would like. It happens – we find ourselves having a challenging day and suddenly slipping back into old habits or making excuses not to meet our commitment. Developing a plan won’t eliminate the distractions, however a comprehensive approach to meeting your goal will reduce the likelihood of going off course.

To quote Peter Drucker – “Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes… but no plans.”

So here’s to 2016 – may it be full of steps forward!