All kind of people/Shutterstock
Source: All kind of people/Shutterstock

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 we have such a hard time keeping them? Some estimates find that more than 40% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. (For comparison, about a third of Americans watch the Super Bowl.) Yet for all the good intentions, only a tiny fraction of us keep our resolutions; University of Scranton research suggests that just 8% of people achieve their New Year’s goals. 

Researchers have looked at the trajectory of resolutions and found that the first two weeks usually go beautifully, but by February people start backsliding. And by December most are back where they started—and often even further behind. Are people just weak or lazy?

According to researcher John Norcross and his colleagues, who published their findings in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, approximately 50% of the population makes resolutions each year, primarily focused on weight loss, exercise, smoking, 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, but aren't really ready to change their bad habits, accounting for the high failure rate. Another reason, says Avya Sharma of the Canadian Obesity Network, is that people set unrealistic goals and expectations in their resolutions.

Psychology professor Peter Herman and his colleagues have identified what they call "false hope syndrome," when 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, not only do they not 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 debt, or exercise more, your entire life will change, but when it doesn't, you may get discouraged and revert back to old behavior.

Making resolutions work involves changing behavior—and to change a behavior, you have to change your thinking, or "rewire" your brain. Brain researchers such as Antonio Damasio, Joseph LeDoux, and psychotherapist Stephen Hayes have discovered, through the use of MRIs, that habitual behavior results from thinking patterns that create neural pathways and memories. These 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.

Peter Bregman, writing in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, 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:

“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...value most.”

Some psychologists propose that many people aren’t making resolutions for the right reasons. These individuals think that just because it’s a new year, they’re obliged to say they’ll change their behavior. But once they face the reality of what they’re doing, they give up because they aren’t motivated enough in the first place.

Ask yourself: If there were no pressure from others, would you want to change? Studies have shown that people are more likely to succeed in changing their behavior when they are motivated by internal rather than external forces.

So, then, is it a matter of will? Many people assume willpower is a character trait that you’re either born with, or innately lack. But research suggests that it is more complex: It can be trained, but it also relies on energy and can become depleted if overused.

“Just like a muscle, the amount of willpower you have at any given time rises and falls, and if you exercise it, it gets stronger,” says social psychologist Roy Baumeister, the Francis Eppes Professor at Florida State University. He has spent years studying how people regulate emotions, resist temptation, break bad habits, and perform up to their potential—and why they often fail to do so. He was recently interviewed in the Atlantic about his new book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, co-authored by John Tierney. He offered a clear picture of just why willpower is so tricky and misunderstood. Among his conclusions:

  • Each person's supply of willpower is limited. And, as the 'power' aspect of willpower implies, it's a form of energy. It gets depleted when you use it. So keeping New Year's resolutions depends on the basic energy supply that the person needs for all other acts of self-control, as well as other things, like decision-making. A day in which you have had to make a number of tough decisions is likely to be a day you'll be sorely tempted not to follow through on your resolutions.
  • One common problem is that people make multiple resolutions. These are all effectively commitments to use one's willpower. Unfortunately, just making the resolution doesn't increase your supply. When you have several resolutions, each time you try to keep any of them, you use up some of the precious willpower needed to keep the others. In other words, multiple resolutions all work against each other and undermine each other's chances of success.
  • People with good self-control actually spend less time resisting desires than other people, because they avoid problem situations and cultivate good habits. This enables them to get the most out of their willpower. They may not actually have more willpower, but they use it more wisely. Understanding how willpower works can be a powerful key to a happier, more successful life.
  • Habits do not actually increase willpower; they conserve it. A habit is a pattern of automatic behavior. Behaving automatically requires less effort than deliberately exerting conscious control over one's actions. The most successful people use their willpower to set up effective habits, rather than relying on it to bail them out of trouble or cope with problems.
  • Pre-commitment is another class of helpful strategies. When people choose what they are going to eat well in advance, they eat better than when they decide, impulsively, what and how much to eat on each occasion. Pre-commitment includes things like automatic savings plans that transfer some of your paycheck into a savings account, without you having to make a decision each time.
  • As for a starter resolution, begin with a positive change that's small and doable. Don't start with a tough one, like losing 30 pounds or quitting smoking. Start with something like making your bed each morning, or cleaning the dishes right after dinner, or not swearing in front of your children. And then follow through. If you succeed at this easy one, it will actually strengthen your willpower, thereby improving your ability to succeed at the next, more difficult one. Once you have a series of successes under your belt, you will be better able to tackle the really tough ones."

Successful resolutions have a lot to do with breaking bad habits and establishing new, more desirable ones. Habits form through repetition of the same behavior in response to the same cue. Researchers have discovered that the first few times you do something are the most strongly habit-forming, although separate research suggests it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit. This study also revealed that some behaviors are easier to habitualize than others.

Having said all that, here are some tips to help you make your own resolutions work:

  1. Focus on one resolution rather than several and set realistic, specific goals. "Lose weight" is not specific. Losing 10 pounds in 90 days would be.
  2. Don't wait for next New Year's Eve to make new resolutions. Make it a year-long process, every day.
  3. Take small steps. Many people quit because a goal is too big and requires too much effort and action all at once.
  4. Have an accountability buddy, someone close to you to whom you have to report your progress.
  5. Celebrate success between milestones—don't wait for the goal to be finally completed.
  6. Focus your thinking on new behaviors and thought patterns so you can create new neural pathways to change habits.
  7. Focus on the present. What's the one thing you can do today, right now, to move toward 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.

Finally, don't take yourself so seriously. Have fun and laugh at yourself when you slip, but don't let a slip hold you back from working toward your goal.

Ray Williams, a Master Executive Coach and Speaker, is president of Ray Williams Associates, a company based in Vancouver providing executive coaching, leadership mentoring, and speaking services. More info at the Ray Williams Associates website.

Copyright, 2015 by Ray Williams. This article may not be reproduced or published without permission from the author. If you share it, please give author credit and do not remove embedded links.

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