It’s that time of year again.
After the busy holiday season passes, you are left with extra fatigue, extra debt, a few extra pounds – and extra time to spend ruminating on the last year and what you could have done differently.
Which, of course, inspires you to create a list of New Year’s resolutions.
You are probably going to be highly motivated when you sit down to craft your list. If you are like most people, you will include goals like starting an exercise program, eating more healthfully, saving money, and ending habits like smoking or drinking alcohol.
This WILL be your year – the year you make it all happen – finally.
But wait…does any of this sound familiar?
Haven’t you set the same lofty goals before, in years past…goals that were a distant memory by the beginning of March?
According to Statistic Brain Research Institute, 45% of Americans usually make New Year’s resolutions, and 17% “infrequently” do.
Of those who do, only 8% are successful in achieving their resolution. About half of those who make resolutions occasionally have some success, and 24% never succeed – they fail year after year.
Those statistics might sound discouraging, but take heart: the researchers found that people who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t explicitly make resolutions.
There are things you can do to increase your chance of success.
First, let’s explore WHY New Year’s resolutions fail.
For most, the first two weeks are smooth sailing…but by February, the ship is sinking.
Here are some possible reasons.
Procrastination and “Presentism Bias”
Timothy Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada, says that resolutions are a form of “cultural procrastination,” an effort to reinvent oneself. Pychyl, an expert on procrastination, says people make resolutions as a way of motivating themselves, and argues that people aren’t ready to change their habits (especially bad habits). That accounts for the high failure rate, he explains.
In the article New Year’s Resolutions: Ringing in the New with the Old, Pychyl says:
Research shows that we are biased in our predictions of the future by our present circumstances. This “presentism” leads us to believe we’ll feel less stressed in January just as we do now during the holidays.
In addition, there’s nothing like a good intention for later to make us feel good now. We have made an important, perhaps even noble, intention for change, but we don’t have to do anything until later. We feel great, and with the presentism bias, we also predict that we’ll feel like engaging in that task in the future too.
Deeply Ingrained Habits and Emotions
Psychology professor Jim Taylor says that our past can be an obstacle to change:
We bring good things into adulthood from our childhood and we likely also bring some not-so-good things, what is commonly referred to as “baggage.” The most common types of baggage include low self-esteem, perfectionism, fear of failure, need for control, anger, and need to please. This baggage causes us to think, feel, and behave based on who we were as children rather than who we now are as adults.
Deeply ingrained habits in the way we think, experience emotions, and behave arise out this baggage. We react to the world in certain ways because that’s the way we always have; these habits produce knee-jerk reactions that are no longer healthy or adaptive.
Psychology professor Peter Herman says people have what he calls “false hope syndrome”:
Generally, we argue that people fail because the resolutions that they make are unrealistic. They’re overly ambitious in that they try to accomplish more than they realistically can. They also try to accomplish more things more quickly than is realistically possible and they underestimate the difficulty of the task. Our research happens to be in the domain of food and dieting. So if you apply this idea to dieting, you can see that people try to lose too much weight—and that they think they can lose it more quickly and more easily than they actually can.
Professor Herman continues:
The one other thing that’s relevant in this context is a secondary aspect of failure. Even if you succeed in losing as much weight as you hoped, as quickly and as easily as you’d hoped, there is still room for failure in the sense that the changes in your life that you expected to follow often fail to materialize. People often want to lose weight because they believe that it’s going to improve their lives—career, health, social life. What a lot of people find is that even when they get the number on the scale down to where they were hoping it would be, those things don’t happen. Prince Charming doesn’t come along, and they don’t get the raise that they were expecting.
If your resolution is significantly unrealistic and out of alignment with your internal view of yourself, you set yourself up for failure. For example, if you see yourself as an overweight, unhealthy person, it is going to be very difficult for you to do things that people of a healthy weight do.
People who don’t understand self-image erroneously put all their attention on changing their eating and exercise behaviors, for example, but the problem with this physical-only approach is that it’s not addressing the source or cause of the behavior. The source of your behavior is your mental self-image. You are more than just a body. You are a body, a mind and a spirit. You will always act – and can ONLY act – like the type of person you SEE yourself to be in your mind.
How to Construct Resolutions to Increase Your Chance of Success
Choose your resolutions carefully: Don’t set too many goals – you will likely get overwhelmed if you try to impose a total life overhaul. Select one area to focus on at a time. For example: it is very difficult to stop smoking AND lose weight – choose one to start with, and then move to the other once the first has become a new habit.
Write them down: Put some time and effort into this. Get as detailed as possible. Choose your words carefully: Instead of writing “I want to be healthier” try “I AM healthier.” Write “I am a non-smoker” instead of “I am going to quit smoking.” There’s power in faking it until you make it. What you think about, you bring about. Use positive words. Focus on what you will gain, not what you are trying to lose.
Try using a one-word theme: This involves creating a summarized, overarching theme for your entire year. Bestselling author Gretchen Rubin offers an example: “For 2015, I chose ‘Upgrade.’ I wrote, ‘I want to take many areas of my life to the next level.'”
Make self-improvement a year-round endeavor: Don’t limit self-improvement to the beginning of a new year. Framing positive habit changes as an ongoing journey helps you stay the course after your initial enthusiasm fades.
Find a partner-in-crime: It is easier – and more enjoyable – to make changes if you have an accountability buddy (or two!) to check in with.
Celebrate small successes: You don’t have to wait until you reach your ultimate goal to give yourself a pat on the back or a reward. Celebrate your success in increments or milestones during the process.
Create meaningful goals: What are the reasons you have chosen certain resolutions? Connecting them to personal benefits makes them more achievable.
Go easy on yourself: Try not to beat yourself up when you slip. No one is perfect, and unless you have superhuman powers, you will encounter obstacles along the way. Get up, brush yourself off, and get back on track as fast as you can.
Remember, though, that your self-image is at the core of your ability to make positive changes in your life. Create your desired self-image – picture it in your mind. Make it vivid and detailed. Dream, fantasize, imagine it – make it clear in your mind. Write that detailed description down somewhere and carry it with you. Refer back to it when you are feeling defeated or unsure.
One last note of inspiration: Research shows you are 10 times more likely to stick to a change made at the New Year.
In this inspiring video, Dr. Mike Evans of Evans Health Lab explains why.
Now, go out there and make this the best year possible!
Happy New Year!