*This blog entry is coauthored with Thomas Hatvany
Admit it – we all do it. Every year we decide to start January 1st by reinventing ourselves in some novel way. But few of us stick to these resolution and soon find ourselves falling back on our old ways. The idea of the New Year’s resolution is an important fixture in our society, but so too is the idea of ditching our New Year’s resolution. The concept even has its own holiday. January 17th has been dubbed “Ditch your New Year’s Resolution Day” because it is the most common date people abandon their New Year’s goal. To help us overcome these odds, every year around this time the news and internet are flooded with advice on how to stick to your goals. Nearly all of this advice focuses on the types of goals people adopt. If you follow this advice, you know that you should adopt goals that are specific instead of vague, quantifiable instead of abstract, and ones that can be easily linked with a situational cue.
There is nothing wrong with this advice; we have given it ourselves in blog entries and interviews. But maybe the problem is not what we chose to adopt. Maybe the problem is when. Maybe the very act of starting your goal on January 1st sets you up for the impending failure. First, consider what most people do the day before their resolution is enacted. Most of us stay up until midnight or later and consume alcohol to usher in the New Year. Thus, we face the New Year groggy, sleep deprived and hung over. We essentially spend December 31 digging ourselves into a hole that we are forced to climb out of on January 1st. This wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that our willpower—or what scientists refer to as self-control—is a very limited resource (Baumeister, Vohs & Tice, 2007). You only have so much of it, and once it is used up, your ability to stick with your goals and resist temptation is threatened. So just getting out of bed and facing the day after the New Year celebration taxes your fuel tank, leaving you with little in reserve to put toward your new resolution.
To make matters worse, alcohol has a uniquely impairing effect on self-control. The physiological source of our willpower appears to be glucose, which serves fuel for both our brain and our muscles. A number of studies have found that when we exert self-control, our glucose levels decrease (Galliot et al, 2007). And when people are given glucose in the form of sugary beverages, they show an increase in self-control. Interestingly, even gargling with a sugary beverage and then spitting it out has been shown to boost self-control, likely because receptors in our mouth are tricked into thinking they consumed glucose (Sanders et al., 2012). But just as sugar boosts glucose, alcohol depletes it. As tasty as those glasses of champagne are, your body sees them as poison and so it goes through great efforts to rid yourself of the alcohol. To have enough energy for this task, your body temporarily shuts down other functions, including the healthy maintenance of glucose levels. This is why 50-70% of people with alcoholic liver disease also have glucose-related disorders (e.g., diabetes).
But the negative impact of alcohol on blood glucose is not necessarily immediate and it often carries over into the next day. So by the time we start our goal on January 1st, we have already depleted ourselves of our self-control resources. It’s a lot like starting a road trip with an empty tank of gas.
But what if you don’t drink on New Year’s? Or what if you go to bed at a reasonable hour and simply watch highlights of the ball drop during your morning news? Have you escaped the inevitable failure? Not quite. In addition to New Year’s festivities, the end of the year also marks the end of a whirlwind of activity. We are exhausted by all those holiday parties, elaborately cooked dinners and straining family interactions.
Businesses are working extra hard to wrap up by the end of their year. Workers owe their end-of-year reports and inventories. Projects all tend to be due at this time of year. And just when we get all of this cleared off our plate, we are hit with a flood of new projects to start out the year. Dealing with all of this stress requires self-control, leaving less available for enacting our new resolutions.
All of this doesn’t mean we are against the New Year’s resolution. Quite the opposite. It is great that once a year we all think about ways to improve ourselves. It’s just than January 1st may be the worst day to start these improvements. So what do we suggest? First, hold off on starting your resolution for a week. Instead, spend the first week of the New Year planning and preparing for the start of your resolution. Clean out the kitchen of all the holiday cookies and candies. Stock it instead with healthy options like fruits, veggies, lean protein and whole grains. Dust off that treadmill that hasn’t been touched in months or better yet, drag it in front of the TV so there are no excuses. All good military generals prepare and plan before charging into battle. You should too.
Second, avoid starting your resolution on a Monday. Mondays are already taxing, so give yourself a few days to get back into the groove. Start your resolution on a Wednesday or Thursday instead. You increase your likelihood of successfully making it to the weekend, which will only empower you to try for the full week next time.
Third, instead of just designating one day a year to start anew, why not start over each season, or even each month? Instead of setting one large goal for the whole year, set a smaller goal for yourself each month. Treat the first of every month as a chance to re-commit to your goal. This approach takes the pressure off. If you fail at your goal in January, it’s no big deal. You’ll get a redo in February. By focusing on the when in addition to the what, you might just be able to skip that January 17th holiday.