The start of the new year is often the perfect time to turn a new page in your life, which is why so many people make New Year's resolutions. But why do so many people have a hard time keeping their resolutions?
Researchers have looked at the success rates of peoples' resolutions: The first two weeks usually go along beautifully, but by February, people are backsliding. And by the following December, most people are back where they started — often even further behind. Why do so many people not keep their resolutions? Are people just weak-willed or lazy?
According to researcher John Norcross and his colleagues, who published their findings in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, approximately 50 percent of the population makes resolutions each New Year. Among the top resolutions are weight loss, exercise, stopping smoking, better money management, and debt reduction.
Timothy Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada and a fellow PT blogger, says that resolutions are a form of "cultural procrastination," an effort to reinvent oneself. People make resolutions as a way of motivating themselves, he says. Pychyl argues that people aren't ready to change their habits, particularly bad habits, and that accounts for the high failure rate. Another reason, says Dr. Avya Sharma of the Canadian Obsesity Network, is that people set unrealistic goals and expectations in their resolutions.
Psychology professor Peter Herman and his colleagues have identified what they call the "false hope syndrome," which means that a person's resolution is significantly unrealistic and out of alignment with their internal view of themselves. This principle reflects that of making positive affirmations. When you make positive affirmations about yourself that you don't really believe, the positive affirmations not only don't work, they can be damaging to your self-worth.
The other aspect of failed resolutions lies in the cause and effect relationship. You may think that if you lose weight, or reduce your debts, or exercise more, your entire life will change, and when it doesn't, you may get discouraged and then revert back to old behaviors.
Making resolutions work involves changing behaviors — and in order to change a behavior, you have to change your thinking (or "rewire" your brain). Brain scientists, such as Antonio Damasio, Joseph LeDoux, and psychotherapist Stephen Hayes, have discovered, through the use of MRIs, that habitual behavior is created by thinking patterns that create neural pathways and memories, which become the default basis for your behavior when you're faced with a choice or decision. Trying to change that default thinking by "not trying to do it" in effect just strengthens it. Change requires creating new neural pathways from new thinking.
Writing in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, Peter Bregman argues, “When we set goals, we're taught to make them specific and measurable and time-bound. But it turns out that those characteristics are precisely the reasons goals can backfire. A specific, measurable, time-bound goal drives behavior that's narrowly focused and often leads to either cheating or myopia. Yes, we often reach the goal, but at what cost?” Bregman advocates creating an area of focus rather than goals and goes on to say: “An area of focus taps into your intrinsic motivation, offers no stimulus or incentive to cheat or take unnecessary risks, leaves every positive possibility and opportunity open, and encourages collaboration while reducing corrosive competition. All this while moving forward on the things you and your organization value most.”
Having said that, if you feel compelled to make New Year's resolutions, here are some tips to help you make them work:
1. Focus on one resolution, rather than several, and set specific, realistic goals. Losing weight is not a specific goal. Losing 10 pounds in 90 days would be.
2. Don't wait till New Year's Eve to make resolutions. Make it a year-long process, renewing your commitment every day.
3. Take small steps. Many people quit because the goal is too big, requiring too much effort and action all at once.
4. Have an accountability buddy, someone close to you to whom you have to report.
5. Celebrate your success in milestones. Don't wait for the goal to be finally completed.
6. Focus your thinking on new behaviors and thought patterns. You have to create new neural pathways in your brain to change habits.
7. Focus on the present. What's the one thing you can do today, right now, towards your goal?
8. Be mindful. Become physically, emotionally, and mentally aware of your inner state as each external event happens, moment-by-moment, rather than living in the past or future.
And finally, don't take yourself so seriously. Have fun and laugh at yourself when you slip, but don't let the slip hold you back from working at your goal.