Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Buy Now, Pay Later: New Year's Resolutions, Self-deception and Procrastination

Why feeling good about New Year's resolutions is a problem

Buy now, pay later signYou've got to love New Year's resolutions. The self-righteous act makes us feel good now, but we pay later. In fact, I think these resolutions are a form of culturally-scripted procrastination that actually results in greater self-regulatory failure.

My colleagues on the Psychology Today blog have had lots to say about New Year's resolutions with one strong, common theme - usually we don't succeed. Ironic, isn't it? Certainly this isn't news about the results of some recent study. This is common knowledge. It's even one of the many reasons that these resolutions are seen to be a bit of a joke. Then, why do we bother?

I think we make these resolutions simply because they are a cultural expectation, a social script. These aren't things we're necessarily committed to, but they do sound good and align with the better part of ourselves, the selves we hope to be.

In fact, I agree with Kelly McGonigal (PT blog, The Science of Willpower) who writes that New Year's resolutions are not about change, they're an expression of hope.  Kelly does a very good job in her post of explaining how just the expression of these resolutions makes us feel good. As she writes, it's about instant gratification and a powerful boost in mood.

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I love how Ann Smith put it in her blog, Healthy Connections, she writes, "Why do we make promises and then break them? In part because we like how we feel when we say things like "Next year I'm going to . . ."

Procrastination - to put forward to tomorrow. How much better is it to say "I'll put it forward to next year!"? Every car and furniture dealer knows the power of this promise, "buy now and don't pay a cent until next year!"

It's an old theme for the readers of this Don't Delay blog, giving in to feel good . . . it's one of the key reasons that self-regulation fails.

This insight alone should be enough to get us to stop making these New Year's resolutions and stop buying new appliances and cars without the money in the bank. Alas, the current economic situation is clear evidence that it's human nature to crave this immediate gratification.

So, I won't add to the many words already written here about how to succeed with your New Year's resolutions if you do indeed still intend to make one. Instead, I'll leave you with this link to my podcast where I discuss the issue at more length in terms of more realistic goal setting, affective forecasting and implementation intentions.

It can be done, but I must admit that the odds are against us, and perhaps this year the best New Year's resolution of all is to stop the self-deception, beginning with the idea of the New Year's resolution itself. Why? It's the self-deception at the heart of the New Year's resolution that perpetuates our self-regulation failure.

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.

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