I've never been a fan of resolutions, and as it turns out the best way to break bad habits (and make good, new ones) is actually not to make any resolutions at all.
So I thought to kick off this year's blog, I'd write a psych post on how to avoid resolution pitfalls and make new, good habits that you can actually keep...
Apparently in our efforts to try hard to not do something, psychological research (1) suggests that, paradoxically, you'll probably end up performing more of those negative habits. They've aptly named this frustrating phenomenon 'ironic mental control'. Hilarious.
So here's one of the reasons why it happens...
If I ask you to 'imagine a chocolate cake', chances are you can conjure it up really easily - the way it looks, its sweet smell, the sensation of your fork pushing through it the stickiness of the topping to the rich cake beneath... the decadent taste and experience of it melting into your mouth.
Just writing this I'm getting hungry.
Now, if I say, 'don't imagine a pink penguin', even with the most exquisite mental control, you'll probably find an image of a pink penguin popping into your head.
Because, simplistically speaking, your subconscious doesn't differentiate between 'do' and 'don't', it fixates on the object (in this case the pink penguin) making it very hard to resist the item in question.
And this doesn't just extend to food. Whatever you're trying to resist, it turns out that the process of avoiding or suppress any kind of unwanted thoughts actually tends to backfire as a strategy, often resulting in the resurgence of those same thoughts you were trying to get rid of in the first place (2).
Nowhere is this more frustrating than when you're trying to get over an old flame.
In fact, research (3) has found that trying to suppress thoughts and feelings towards an ex lover can actually make their presence more persistent, resulting in a more intrusive emotional disturbance than if you'd just allowed yourself to follow that train of thought naturally in the first place. Great.
So what can you do about it?
Fret not, help is at hand.
If you have a particular habit you'd like to change, Daniel Wegner (author of the above paper on ex lovers and a pioneer in this field) suggests that to succeed, you should make your New Year's Resolutions affirmative and positive.
So instead of resolving to stop drinking as much, or to lose that extra pound, instead you should resolve to become more fit.
Not only that - research (4) has also found that if you want to change your behaviours, you'll find it easier to stick to your guns by telling yourself and others 'I don't drink on weekdays', than by using permissive language, like 'I can't drink on weekdays'. Although don't and can't may seem interchangeable, psychologically they're very different.
Whereas you experience I can’t as a restriction, something that's being imposed upon you, when you use the words I don’t, you experience it as a choice, so this statement feels empowering - an affirmation of your willpower and determination.
3. D. M. Wegner and D. B. Gold (1995). Fanning old flames: emotional and cognitive effects of suppressing thoughts of a past relationship. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68(5), pp. 782-92.