In Love and War

Rethinking the way we treat ourselves.

How to Trick Yourself Into Making Your Resolution Stick

Can reverse psychology help you with your New Year's Resolution?

Year after year we make ambitious New Year's Resolutions, 88% of which ultimately fail, according to a 2007 study. There is no shortage of advice on how to make this year the year where you actually stick with your plan for more than 2 weeks. Most of us know by now that we should set realistic goals, take things one step at a time, enlist support, and bounce back from setbacks rather than giving up too easily. And yet, somehow we still manage to fail, time and time again. 

Part of the problem is that our resolutions very quickly start to feel like chores rather than choices. They become something that we have to do, not something we want to do. And that's not really surprising, since most resolutions involve doing things that are unpleasant or even painful. Running a mile when we're out of shape and our legs are aching, forgoing a cigarette or a drink when that feels like the only thing that will relieve the stress of a rough day, eating carrot sticks when everyone around us is indulging in cake. 

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Forcing ourselves to do something we don't want to do is unlikely to be effective, and it may even backfire. According to reactance theory, when we feel pressured to behave in a certain way or adopt a certain attitude, we may be more likely to adopt or strengthen the opposite behavior or attitude as a way of asserting our freedom. This theory helps to explain how reverse psychology works and why forbidden fruit is so tempting. 

Reactance can occur even when we are the ones pressuring ourselves, which seems to go against conventional wisdom about the power of positive affirmations. One study found that participants who wrote the words "I will" 20 times reported less motivation to exercise than those who wrote "Will I" instead. This relationship was mediated by higher levels of intrinsic motivation among the "Will I" participants, suggesting that framing a goal as a question (with room for personal choice) might be more effective than framing it as a statement.  

The power of reactance is cleverly demonstrated in the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle book series, which documents the unconventional methods of a women who is called upon to help neighborhood kids break bad habits by letting them indulge their habits to a distastrous extreme. One of the most memorable is a story called "The Radish Cure" about a little girl, Patsy Waters, who doesn't like to take baths. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's prescription is to allow Patsy not to bathe for as long as she wants. In time, Patsy ends up covered with dirt so thick that radishes begin to grow out of her body. Needless to say, Patsy becomes an avid bather after this experience. Other cures involve allowing a messy child to become trapped amongst his own toys and encouraging a picky eater to take such tiny bites that he becomes frail and needs to be pushed around in a wheelbarrow. 

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's cures may seem to border on child abuse—they are clearly not meant to be taken literally—but there is a lot of wisdom in them. The idea is to make the healthy behavior the form of rebellion, a free choice rather than an obligation. Rather than telling the kids what to do, she lets them discover for themselves what they want and don't want by exposing them to the natural consequences of their actions. As adults, and especially as young adults, it's hard to clearly see what these consequences will be until it's too late. A heavy drinker can't see her liver starting to swell, and a couch potato can't feel his heart weakening. But the Piggle-Wiggle approach can still be applied when it comes to our adult vices. Here's how:

1. Make the desired behavior the forbidden fruit. Instead of requiring yourself to go for a run, forbid yourself from doing any physical activity. Require yourself to sit on the couch for hours, as if you're stuck on an airplane. Imagine that you are going to have to sit there indefinitely. You could even take it as far as imagining that you no longer have the ability to walk. This mental exercise should only take a few moments before it has its desired effect. 

Forbidding the desired behavior can also change your experience of it for the better. If you consider what it would be like not to be able to use your legs at all, running may suddenly become invigorating and enjoyable rather than painful and boring. The fact that you have the ability to run is an amazing privilege that is easily forgotten when you're focused on the obligation of exercise.  

2. Find your "Ghosts of Christmas Future." Fast-forward 5, 10, 20 years and ask yourself what your life will look like if you continue on your current path, and what it will look like if you make a change. You don't need to wait until you're being wheeled around in a wheelbarrow or buried under your toys to see the long-term consequences of your actions. There is probably evidence all around you in other people who have stayed on that path, and some evidence in your own life already that points to things to come. But remember that your "future ghosts" are there to help you see the choices before you for what they are, not shame you.

3. Consider the benefits of the bad habit. There's a reason that bad habits are hard to break. They have benefits. They make us feel good, comfort us, distract us from our problems, help us get work done, give us energy, calm us down, help us connect with other people. These benefits are highly motivating, especially when we believe that our bad habit is the only way to reap them. If you're going to choose to let go of a bad habit, you're going to have to choose to let go of those benefits. It's easy to say, "I'm done dealing with regrettable drunken behavior and painful hangovers." No one wants those things. Giving up the good stuff is the hard part. If you're going to make a change, it's important to know what you're sacrificing, and to be okay with that. Otherwise you'll have little defense against the temptations that will inevitably arise. Giving up the benefits need not be harsh, however. If you know what they are, you can find ways to recreate them in healthier ways, for example by doing yoga to relax instead of smoking a cigarette. 

And finally, if the word "resolution" is too laden with pressure and expectation, call it something else, or don't call it anything at all. But don't give up on making the changes you want to make in your life. Arbitrary as it may seem, the New Year is a great opportunity to reflect on where we've been and where we're headed. If anything, we should do it more often.

Juliana Breines, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral fellow at Brandeis University.

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