The Procrastination Equation

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

The Two Faces of the New Year

Celebration of the Past and Resolutions for the Future

New Year’s Eve and Day reflects its origins by having two sides. Historically, this was a time of pagan celebrations for Janus, the two-face god. It is why the first month is called “January,” where we have an opportunity to look forward and back. Appropriately, on New Year’s Eve, we decadently celebrate all that was once while on New Year’s Day, we make sacrifices to our future selves. Resolutions to do better became part of the New Year culture around the beginning of the eighteenth century. Christian puritans tried to reform the holiday into a holy day by making it a time to redouble one’s commitment to God through religious resolutions. However, these resolutions soon became very much about self-improvement in general. For example, Jonathan Edwards, one of the most famous of American theologians, wrote extensively about the problems of procrastination (e.g., “The Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time”), also devised a list of 70 resolutions, including “to ask myself at the end of every day, week, month and year, wherein I could possibly in any respect have done better.”

Today, such resolutions are common place. My own resolution is to be a little more grateful for all that I have and you probably have one too. Let’s see if we can make the most from our endeavors to be better.

Now the absolute King of New Year’s Resolution research is the psychologist John Norcross from the University of Scranton. His work isn’t cited much, which is a shame given its importance. What he did was pretty straightforward. He contacted a wide sample of people to determine who made New Year’s resolutions (i.e., resolvers), with those who didn’t (i.e., non-resolvers) but who still had a behavior they wanted to change. He then contacted these groups at regular time intervals to determine how successful they were and what strategies they were using. Altogether, it gives us a pretty good picture of whether New Year’s resolutions work and how to make them work even better.

First, if you made a New Year’s resolution, good for you. The very act of making a resolution increases your success immensely over not making one at all. Sure, by the end of week two only about 70% of resolvers are still going strong but compare that to the 50% of non-resolvers. By the six month mark, about 46% of resolvers are still going at it while only a meager 4% of the non-resolvers. That’s over a ten-fold increase in success rate. Still, you can see from these statistics that most people don’t endure with their resolutions despite making them. How can we do better?

To become successful at New Year’s resolutions, it is almost all about those early weeks. This is starting a new life style or a new routine, which is exceptionally difficult at the beginning. Other research shows that it takes about two to three months (to be precise, an average of 66 days) to create a habit. Consequently, when we compare with the drop off rates in the resolutions, they almost all occur in the first two to three months. As Norcross reported:

  • 1 and 2 weeks -  71%
  • 3 and 4 weeks -  64%
  • 3 months -  50%
  • 6 months -  46%

As you can see, you get a 50% loss in the first three months and then only a 4% loss thereafter. In fact, once you hit the three month mark, your odds of dropping your New Year’s resolutions go down to 1% per month, not bad at all. The problem narrows down to how to get you to the three month mark.

As mentioned, Norcross compared what strategies people were using that were successful as well as the ones that weren’t. As I’ve posted previously under Lady Gaga versus The Secret, we get the familiar split between positive expectations and wishful thinking. Those people who felt confident they could follow through usually did. Those who employed wishful thinking, imagining they already accomplished their goals, usually didn’t. By the way, the research showing how wishful thinking is motivationally damaging is one of the more established psychological findings and, consistent with this research, wishing more people believed this doesn’t make it so.

What turns out to be the most useful is a combination of “inside/outside” strategies. Use your willpower, your sense of agency and choice. Focus on how this is your life and you choose how to live it. However, don’t rely on willpower exclusively; you need to change your environment as well. Try to engineer a world for yourself where you rely on your willpower as little as possible by keeping temptation at a distance and keeping reminders of why you should not give in. In short, as Norcross wrote, “Successful resolvers were also found to report employing significantly more behavioral strategies and less self-blame and wishful thinking than unsuccessful resolvers.”

Where can you find other behavioral strategies that work? Well Norcross was also one of the first to review the growing field of self-help in terms of both books and websites, like Psychology Today itself. Called bibliotherapy, books can be a very effective resource for self-change but, like everywhere, be careful. “As you might anticipate,” Norcross wrote “there is no reliable relationship between the number of copies sold and expert ratings of quality. Indeed, 10% of the best sellers are consensually rated as harmful by psychologists.” On the other hand, there are lots of caring and knowledgeable authors who sincerely want to help you out there on every topic. Just make it your New Year’s resolution to find them.

Want to learn more about yourself? Take one of our online surveys on different aspects of your pesronality and get immediate feedback about yourself.

Norcross, J. C. (2000). Here Comes the Self-Help Revolution in Mental Health. Psychotherapy 37(4), 370-377.

Norcross, John C., Mrykalo, Marci S., & Blagys, Matthew D. (2002). Auld lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year's resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(4), 397-405.

Norcross, John C., Ratzin, Albert C., & Payne, Dorothy. (1989). Brief report ringing in the new year: The change processes and reported outcomes of resolutions. Addictive Behaviors, 14, 205-212.

Norcross, John C., Ratzin, Albert C., & Payne, Dorothy. (1989). Ringing in the new year: The change processes and reported outcomes of resolutions. Addictive Behaviors, 14(2), 205-212. 

Piers Steel has a Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and is a professor of procrastination at the University of Calgary.

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