Why we fail at New Year resolutions
Let’s all start by acknowledging we have a resolution problem
UM Today has asked that I offer an explanation as to why we are all horrible at following through on the resolutions many of us make on or around New Year’s Day. Before I fully get down to responding, I must first concede that I’m not a New Year resolutions expert nor do I have any particular expertise in what people should do to change themselves and their lives. I will admit to being a psychology professor, and that label alone generates a certain expectation in others. For one thing, it encourages the notion that I should be able to provide some insight into issues that matter to people in the real world. I’m also a ‘cognitive psychologist’ with some expertise in the limitations of human memory and thinking, and in the factors that help to determine whether we succeed or fail at reaching our goals. I have committed to do what I can with this New Year resolution problem, but I’m not making any promises and you can consider the above my disclaimer. If you heed my advice and your resolutions still fizzle out before Valentine’s Day, I refuse to take any responsibility for that. Caveat lector.
Let’s all start by acknowledging we have a resolution problem. By the time anybody has a chance to read this, we will be some number of days into the New Year. By now, we will be in a position to note just how creative and convincing we are when making New Year resolutions. (I don’t feel right calling them “New Year’s resolutions”, since doing so makes it seem as though the New Year is making the resolutions and that can’t be right.) We can have little doubt that people can generate excellent New Year resolutions and feel a powerful inspiration to change when they do so. Suppose we all spent some time over the Winter Break reflecting on how we could improve ourselves or make the world better? Suppose further that we all really nailed it when creating a New Year resolution? I mean we really figured out the thing that is most wrong with us and crafted a resolution that would really address the problem. Success in implementing all of our collective resolutions would probably result in a much healthier and happier 2016 for everyone. However, even this early in the New Year, most of the resolution makers out there are beginning to receive signals that their resolution is unlikely to survive January. (The University of Bristol’s Richard Wiseman surveyed a large group of New Year resolution makers and revealed a success rate of only 12%. Having taught my share of university courses, I can assert that 12% is well below a passing score.) As one of the few species on Earth that bothers making New Year resolutions at all, it’s a shame that we are almost complete failures at carrying them out. We are simply bad at doing this.
Given our likelihood of success, perhaps the most reasonable decision would be to stop making these resolutions altogether. Most of us are just going to end up feeling bad about the whole thing. We’ll spend February hoping that nobody mentions how we said we weren’t going to spend either as much or any more time online/playing video games and watching TV/drinking/smoking cigarettes/smoking weed/having sex/not having sex/going out/staying in/eating unhealthy food/being rude to people/fighting/driving recklessly/taking our loved ones for granted/etc. or that we were going to study more/meet someone and have a long-lasting and meaningful relationship/exercise more/be more environmentally-friendly/spend more time serving our community/and so on. It is tempting, but I’m not going to burst all of our bubbles like that. It wouldn’t be right, because maintaining the pursuit of healthy change and self-improvement is too important. People’s energy and conviction when they proclaim New Year resolutions is too inspiring to waste without a fight.
Quirk of the Calendar
That being settled, we are going to need to figure out where our excellent New Year resolutions come from if we are going to harness their power. When the year ends and begins is an arbitrary aspect of our civilization. We could easily make the new year start at one of the official changes of season, like one of the Equinoxes, rather than placing it directly in the middle of white and slippery season. New Year’s Day might have been set at the beginning of September, since that sort of feels more like the beginning of a new year for students and people who work in education (like me!). In one way, it doesn’t really matter when New Year’s Day is. The start of a new year would probably compel strongly voiced resolutions, no matter what time of year we had chosen. Assigning a point that defines the end and beginning of something as big as a year has potent psychological consequences for many people. We are incurably committed to defining and separating chunks of time and then allowing those demarcation points to capture our imaginations. That’s why turning age 30 or 40 is such a big deal for us. When we approach what we perceive as significant time thresholds, doing so will quite naturally stimulate thoughts that have to do with change. As an old year comes to an end, it is difficult to resist asking ourselves some big questions: Was this a good or bad year? How have we changed? What mistakes did we make and why? What was achieved? What was lost? Whom do we miss? Whom are we glad we met or got closer to? I want to suggest that such reflections are most valuable and we should all be grateful that a mere quirk of the calendar system provides such an irresistible opportunity for a review of the past and deep self-analysis. Many of us appear to use the New Year as an opportunity to generate a kind of progress report for ourselves. That kind of reflection is precisely what we need to do if we are going to succeed in making positive changes.
A change in the year provides a terrific stimulus for resolution making, but when New Year’s Eve occurs is perhaps not the best time of year to contemplate and implement major changes. The holiday itself generates a reason to celebrate too much and sleep too little, and it also signals an end to several weeks of physically and emotionally draining activities. Any fun that we have on New Year’s Eve seems like a last stand, after which our lives will return to the same routine that the holiday season blessedly disrupted. Whatever way we feel about our routine, January 1st usually signals a return to what we were up to before. More than that, now we’re tired from all of the fun and stress we experienced on our break from normal life.
We must craft our resolutions as aspects of ourselves that we wish to improve over time, not that we wish to change at the moment Ryan Seacrest declares the old year over.
While participating in a huge party that society throws over several days in December every year, we came up with some great ideas about how to make our lives better. A resolution is born. Now, it’s January, and we’re all hung over and exhausted. How successful do you suppose we will be at fulfilling our peanut brittle and candy cane induced resolution fantasies in the state we’re all in now? We must realize that changing ourselves is difficult and takes a great deal of energy. If it didn’t, why do we need a break from life and a huge party to motivate even thinking about changing ourselves? Let’s get in touch with reality, everyone, but let’s try to do it at the time of resolution making, rather than when real life slams into us in the days after January 1st. (I know that we are days into January now, but let’s not use that as an excuse. There is nothing wrong with treating now as our resolution revision period until, say, the end of the month. Alternatively, I suppose you could just wait until next December, but I’m almost certain you’ll forget my advice that many months from now.)
Tip #1: Don’t get too carried away
We are going to be tired and maybe a little headachey for the first days of January. That isn’t a reason not to make and try to fulfill a good resolution. It just means we need to factor in this reality. It means we need to dial back our more grandiose resolution tendencies. Let’s not plan to accomplish radical and rapid change in ourselves when we make our resolutions for this New Year. Instead, we’ll need to be a bit more conservative. We should resolve not to make dramatic change. We should simply resolve to start the process of dramatic change, gradually and over many weeks. One reason why I expect that resolutions tend to fail is that people try to accomplish too much, too quickly and precisely when they are still in recovery from the holiday season. We likely wouldn’t have the physical and mental strength to achieve rapid and significant transformation even at the best of times. We are especially vulnerable to fall on our face immediately after making the most of the holiday season. We shouldn’t do that to ourselves. We must craft our resolutions as aspects of ourselves that we wish to improve over time, not that we wish to change at the moment Ryan Seacrest declares the old year over.
Tip #2: Resolution is only the beginning
We will have only completed the first, easiest step in the resolution + implementation process when we decide what we want to improve about ourselves. It is an important step, but now we need an implementation plan. I know it isn’t as thrilling and inspiring as proclaiming a resolution for change while uncorking another bottle of wine, but it has been our commitment to the thrill of resolution making and our rather weaker commitment to actual change making that has gotten us into this situation as resolution failures in the first place. It’s obvious we are going to have to hunker down a bit and do some planning. If this thing’ s going to work, we’ll need to set some incremental and realistic goals for ourselves over many weeks that, ideally, will project all the way until Holiday Season 2017. I can’t tell you what goals to set any more than I can tell you what resolution(s) to make. That will depend on your peculiar self and unique situation. All I can tell you is that you better get to work with a calendar and set some modest goals that you will have some decent chance of achieving. If your plan is going to work, you had better think carefully about the structure of your life when you’re not hopped-up on punch and mistletoe. Stop wishing and get off of Santa’s lap! You’re going to have to think more like an Elf. Like you, if they are going to deliver by next Christmas, they will need to put together a schedule.
Tip #3: Resolutions must somehow incorporate a consideration of your whole life, not just narrow aspects of it
Now, if it would be so great for us to change, why wouldn’t we have done so already? We must infer that our life has not lent itself to making that critical change that inspired you to make your resolution. You must acknowledge this and craft your resolution plan accordingly. It won’t be sufficient to state confidently that you will do more of something or less of something and plan out how much more or less you’ll do of that thing across the weeks of 2016. You must recognize that doing more of one thing means doing less of something else. If there is one thing that being a psychologist has taught me in abundance, it’s that people have limited amounts of time and energy. It seems obvious, which makes me wonder why people often fail to factor this reality into their plans for the future. We are an ambitious bunch and we like to talk big, but the resources available to us are severely limited. The constraints on us will never permit us to reach the goals that our imaginative minds are capable of generating. We should be ambitious, but being fully practical will require thinking thoroughly about the structure of our regular lives. How will our lives make room for the change that we desire? What are we able and willing to give up to make it fit?
You must recognize that doing more of one thing means doing less of something else.
Similarly, when seeking to do less of something, it is imperative to identify the reasons that we do that thing in the first place. We, alone, are not the only cause of what we do. The people and places in our lives also have an influence. The people and places in our lives serve as cues that engage our old habits like reflexes. The roles we must fulfill within our families or in our jobs exert their control on us. Meeting the demands and expectations of other people exerts pressure on us to behave in certain ways. If you are hoping to do less of some unhealthy or destructive thing that you do, you will need to think carefully about what aspects of your life encourage that behavior. If you’re resolution plan fails to address how you are going to overcome those triggers for the behavior that you want to change, your chances at a successful resolution will be in serious jeopardy. I suspect that many resolutions ultimately fail because the structure of a person’s life makes fulfilling the resolution impossible. Adjustments to many other aspects of our lives may well be necessary if we are going to succeed at implementing even a modest New Year resolution over a practical timeline.
My summary message is that change is difficult and frequently tedious work. (Many of us may even require professional assistance.) For the reasons that I’ve provided, allowing the holidays to intoxicate you into shouting a commitment to change your life will rarely be enough. You should do it anyway. There will always be something about each of us perpetually flawed creatures that will benefit from change. At the very least, trying to improve ourselves will steal time away from doing things that are bad for us. It is possible to make a resolution succeed with much clever planning and strategizing. Sustaining us in all of that hard work might well require a nice jolt at the beginning. Let’s remember the fireworks and use all of that turkey and eggnog we consumed last month to fuel a public declaration about what we’re going to do better next year.
You go first.