The Procrastination Equation

Everything you wanted to know about procrastination but put off finding out.

Making New Year’s Resolutions Last All Year

Making New Year's Resolution That Work All Year Long

Origin of New Year's Resolutions - 1735

New Year's resolutions are one of our best traditions. Originally devised by the Catholic Church as devotional pledges to counter "heathenish customs ... dedicated to the devil-god Janus," they combine dozens of cultural sources today. All over the world, the New Year represents a fresh start, a new beginning we can use to change the course of our lives. About fifty percent of people take part in the tradition, typically resolving to stop smoking, lose weight, or start exercising. Getting your finances under control is also a popular choice.

Making resolutions is a great idea. Compared to those who make no resolutions, resolvers are more likely to make the change. Still, it's too bad they only happen once a year. Resolutions may be better than nothing, but they're not that much better. By the time January 1st rolls around again, most of us will be making the same promises for reform once more - on average, for ten years in a row. Some time before June we will probably lapse back into our old habits. Aside from creating a new holiday that makes July 1st a second chance to turn over a new leaf, we need to pump up the power of our resolutions so they last the full 12 months. While I can't review in one post my entire book, The Procrastination Equation, we can deal with one element of it: expectancy or self-confidence.  

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Expectancy or self-confidence is a key component of The Procrastination Equation, but be careful not to over do it. Not only can you have too little self-confidence, you can also have too much. We are going to focus on the latter of these two possibilities to help you accomplish your New Year's resolutions. It all starts by accepting our limitations.

Willpower Alone Isn't Usually Enough

First, acknowledge that you can't do it all by yourself. Most people need some help, and there are a lot of proven techniques that pump up the power of resolutions. That first step - just accepting that your will isn't perfect - will point you in the right direction. People who try to fulfill their resolutions by willpower alone are more likely to fail. On the other hand, if you accept that you are likely to fail, then you should be more willing to learn a new trick or two that will help you succeed. None of us knows it all and there is always another tactic that might work well for you.

Expect Lapses

Second, it is important to find the sweet spot between under and over confidence. Be confident that you can eventually succeed. Millions of people have made similar changes before, including a lot of people with far less going for them than you do. But don't be overconfident in your execution. You need to believe that you will eventually succeed, but not so much that you aren't prepared for a stumble or two along the way. Thinking that you can do this without a hitch is a little over-optimistic, like walking a tightrope for the first time without a net. I truly hope your will never fails, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it.

Fortunately, success isn't measured by how many times you stumble but by how quickly you get back on track. Keeping your lapses brief and contained is the next best thing to never having lapsed at all. To do this, you need to make a disaster recovery plan. What are you going to do when, despite the best of your intentions, you find yourself smoking cigarettes and eating desserts once again, and haven't gone to the gym in a month?

Make plans now for reinitializing your resolutions when the inevitable slip-ups happen. Many people use that first failure as an excuse to give up completely. Called the abstinence violation effect, this is like smoking an entire pack after having one smoke or polishing off the rest of the pecan pie after one tiny forkful. But resolutions needn't be all or nothing. You need to limit the damage as soon as it starts.

For example, if you catch yourself smoking, make a mini-goal to see how few cigarettes you can puff that night. Then, the next day, consider upping your game by getting assistance from one of the myriad of smoking cessation programs around. The same strategy works for any resolution. Focus on reducing the number of violations and shortening the time it will take you to get back on track. This is a reasonable aspiration and a way to make real progress towards your goals without feeling like a failure for being fallible. 

Respect the Power of Temptations

Finally, don't underestimate the power of temptations. Right now, calmly making our plans, we can't fully appreciate how much that couch will beckon or how loudly that chocolate chip cookie will call out to us. We can't hear their call when we are quick to satisfy such urges; but when we stop giving into them, they will only increase in volume. Be warned-there will be times when our cravings will feel excruciating and inescapable.

And our minds will often play tricks on us, soothingly telling us "Just this once." Of course, it never is. That primrose path leads downhill, and on each step are inscribed the words "only one more." However, knowing when and where your willpower tends to fail is extremely useful. It helps us avoid the situations that tempt us in the first place. Dieters pack brown-bag lunches, not only to control what they eat but also to shut out all the temptations that fill a food court. Smokers learn to avoid their old hangouts, because it is here that the desire to light up becomes overwhelming. That's why some people learn to pack their exercise clothing in their cars - they know that going directly to the gym from work is a good habit. If they first went home, it would be too easy to say "tomorrow."

Over the course of my own life, I have quit smoking, started exercising regularly, and began eating more healthy meals. Still, I have been known to lapse, especially with the last two. My family celebrates with food, so packing on a few pounds over the holidays is pretty typical. But I have come to expect this and as I see my weight creep up on the bathroom scale, I know how to reinitialize my better habits. Come Monday, that gift basket of chocolates will get shared with everyone at the office. I know my limitations, and I can't be trusted with it at home.

Now it's time for you too to own up to being fallible. Complete this sentence for me: "When my resolution fails, to get back on track I will..."

By acknowledging that we might fail, we build the foundation for success in the year ahead.

Have a detailed procrastination assessment either online or with this complementary The Procrastination Quotient iPhone app.

Looking for a fun book that informs? Take a peek at The Procrastination Equation. It is the perfect gift for the birthday you missed or anniversary you overlooked. Order your copy. Check out the reviews.

Piers Steel has a Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and is a student of life and a professor of procrastination. more...

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