Why Is It So Darn Hard to Keep New Year’s Resolutions?
Science reveals strategies to overcome the misery of goal abandonment.
Posted December 18, 2015
The annual curse, the perennial plunder, the bane of our existence. Every year with the most noble of intentions, we commit to a plan of improvement, a personal promise, which in all likelihood will ultimately fail. If you are like most mortals, in the next few weeks you will disdain the holiday revelry and commit to a healthy lifestyle that includes the elimination of bad habits, by echoing a renewal sentiment in the form of New Year's resolutions. Turning the calendar is a time for optimistic intentions, like the ethereal spring training dream of a frustrated Chicago Cubs fan waiting for a World Series win, we ardently believe, that this will be the year when our commitments will not wane. Many of us will solemnly swear to abandon procrastination, not cheat on our diets when no one is looking, and rebuke the “I am entitled to” mentality that often accompanies the recidivism of our contentious behaviors.
For many, the idealistic and esoteric dreams of the approaching year are transient sentiments that will fade quicker than a fledgling presidential campaign promise, falling to the wayside in favor of more tenable and realistic options. But why are humans so vulnerable to defeat when setting their well-intentioned reform goals? Science provides ample evidence to explain why our best change efforts may not stand up over time, and why our genuine commitments to personal health, psychological well-being, and daily discipline may rapidly deteriorate from glorious aspirations to deliberately repressed afterthoughts of what could and should have been. However, fret not dear reader, motivational science also offers a number of pre-emptive and practical strategies that will lead you to the path of righteousness and accomplishment, with little, if any, pangs of guilt along the way.
The primary reason that our improvement efforts flounder is because most aspects of human behavior are fleeting and depletable. We are unable to sustain high levels of performance indefinitely. You may recall from high school biology that the body is regulated by the process of homeostasis. Physiologically, we seek to avoid states of uncomfortable deficit. In practice, homeostasis means that when we are hungry we eat, when we are tired we rest, and when we are cold we seek warmth. Biologically, depletion primarily occurs because of decrements of blood glucose levels, which are expended during periods of high activity. In a healthy individual, restoration is achieved and depletion eliminated though the normal cycle of proper rest and nutrition.
Our psychological deficits are also subject to homeostatic restoration because our mind, like our body, experiences fatigue when used extensively. Anyone who has completed a grueling exam or devoted mental energy to a crossword puzzle or memorization task can attest to cognitive exhaustion. Motivational resources have a similar depletion trajectory, which can be confirmed by many unsuccessful dieters, those who have started and failed at smoking cessation, or by many who have devoted effort to a short-lived self-improvement program. Regardless of the target of our efforts, sooner or later we reach a decision-making threshold, and elect to either power on, change goals, and even give up despite our best reform intentions.
During psychological homeostasis, the individual self-regulates, seeking a state of optimal motivation by using strategies and tactics to stay focused on important goals. From a pure performance perspective, those individuals who effectively regulate their cognitive resources are usually far more successful at reaching their goals than those who do not. The successful regulator maintains task focus without dwelling on their accomplishments and emotions, but also does not succumb to the inevitable pitfalls and temptations associated with progression toward a challenging goal (Hoffman, 2015). Although physical and psychological deficits under go a similar restoration processes, the comparison ends there. Eliminating depleted motivational resources is far less intuitive or as simple as grabbing an energy bar or taking a nap, and herein lies the basic quandary for those who seek to change their ways.
The challenge of self-control
You may quickly surmise that any change in effort to sustain a desired behavior is a matter of self-control. Similar control regimens apply regardless if your effort is focused toward healthy eating, exercising regularly, or curbing troublesome holiday habits, like drinking too much egg nog, or staying up all night playing video games. Regrettably, maintaining vigilant control is not easy, even for the most committed regulators. Behaviorally, the exertion of regulatory effort over time diminishes the effectiveness of self-control (Muraven, 2012). Self-control always involves active and conscious inhibition of potential goal killers such as worry, distraction, or dwelling on how darn hard it is to constantly avoid sweets or find the time to exercise regularly. As individuals use their best coping ability, and persevere over time by repeatedly forgoing distractions and resisting counterproductive temptations, the ability to activate subsequent control diminishes.
For example, consider the plight of the diligent dieter who consistently fends off ice cream urges. After resisting temptation dozens of times, eventually the person succumbs and gulps down a carton of ice cream. The defeated dieter rationalizes that he has earned the right to a pleasurable experience because of his noble avoidance efforts, which gradually deteriorated to a point where suppression was no longer psychologically sustainable. Broadly, diminished self-control from repeated resistance is so egregious that it transcends personal health behaviors and contributes to a greater frequency of socially undesirable actions. Low levels of self-control are consistently linked to lying, cheating, stealing, social impropriety and unethical behavior in general, with disturbing frequency in the workplace (Gino, Schweitzer, Mead, & Ariely, 2011). While success with control efforts is challenging and minimally requires understanding the dynamics of control, specific scientifically-supported strategies can forestall or counteract the predictable self-control lapse, and the premature jettison of those pesky New Year resolutions that we all intend to keep.
Have a well-designed plan
Do you want to conserve your control ability and embrace your resolutions? The first step in the regulatory process is to have a premediated plan. That means not approaching a resolution effort with an impulsive or lackadaisical approach, or by jumping into a reform effort head first with little, if any, forethought about or consideration of what challenges or obstacles lie ahead. Instead, invest energy in visualizing the process of attaining your goals. Devote some cognitive horsepower toward predicting which pitfalls you can expect to encounter and what steps you will take to avoid potential distractions.
For example, if you are trying lose weight, determine in advance if you can maintain control when eating in restaurants, or if you need to avoid certain events, places, or even people to stay on course. Alternatively, plan in advance what you will eat when dining at a restaurant and you will be more likely to avoid the debilitating stress of temptation, conserving your limited control resources for unexpected temptations and last minute social invitations. Taking a proactive stance is a necessary first step to goal attainment, and highly instrumental in fending off the inevitable distractions that accompany the pursuit of any worthwhile goal (Wolters & Hussain, 2015).
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Set realistic targets
One of the most frequently encountered roadblocks toward staying the course is being overly aggressive when setting resolution goals. People frequently seek extreme solutions during turnarounds such as exercising six times a week for several hours, or committing to reading non-fiction literature instead slumping nightly in front of the television watching reality shows and overindulging on junk food. While setting “stretch” goals is important for personal growth, goals should also be realistic and be based upon individual capability and practicality. Rather than set a goal which is unlikely to be met, set “instrumental” goals, which are subordinate goals that are within your capability and ones that will sustain momentum toward the desired end state. By example, instead of plan to read 100 pages in a night, set the instrumental goal of 10 pages a night or 100 pages a week. The instrumental progress will sustain your motivation to reach the final goal because the interim goals are attainable.
Setting goals that are too easy can also be a formula for resolution disaster. Goals that don’t require much effort to achieve may be subject to procrastination, or the investment of low levels of effort toward the goal precisely because the target can be easily or quickly attained. In reality, many individuals will engage in “self-handicapping” behavior when determining their resolutions, by deliberately setting incredibly easy targets or by putting unreasonable pressure on the self by setting overwhelming expectations. When committing either of these goals-setting faux pas, failure provides the individual the opportunity to rationalize their behavior by blaming lack of success on the goal choice, rather than personal effort. Both strategies are used to redirect the meaning of failure from a focus on the person to a focus on the unrealistic or incredibly easy goal. For most people, it is much more palatable for their self-esteem to blame behavior on the type of goal they chose than to admit they lacked the ability to meet the goal.
Get social support
Many individuals operate under the false belief that their knowledge, abilities, or resourceful control strategies are sufficient to reach their reform objectives. While basic ability and past experience does account for a great deal of variability in performance outcomes, the influence of others is also a contributing factor in optimizing goal attainment. While seeking social support may give the impression that successful people pursue goals to earn recognition and adoration from others, in reality the support and feedback provided by others enhances intrinsic motivation. Social networks, whether in person or virtual, give the goal setter encouragement in addition to alternative perspectives on how to reach the goal. Others can offer novel strategies and suggest ways to overcome the peaks and valleys associated with reaching any formidable target. The support of others doesn’t replace personal motivation, but a supportive group of cheerleaders can make the difference between victory and defeat.
When writing my book Motivation for Learning and Performance, I interviewed a number of well-known celebrities and public personalities who were highly successful in their chosen careers. I used their lives as examples of the 50 motivational principles I outlined in the text. Unanimously, each interviewee stressed that influence and guidance from others was highly instrumental in their ultimate success. Each person stated that their support network added value, purpose, and meaning to their personal achievements.
For instance, Emmy award winning “Curb your Enthusiasm” actress Cheryl Hines told me that she failed four times auditioning for the role that she eventually landed to launch her career. Cheryl contemplated abandoning acting many times and if it wasn’t for support from her sister Rebecca she might not have achieved worldwide fame (including marrying the son of former U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy)!
I couldn’t begin to list all of the high-tech options that are available to monitor and track goal progress when embarking on your resolution campaign. Hongkait.com lists 40 apps that are specifically designed to help goal setters keep their New Year resolutions! The are hundreds of smartphone applications for just about everything related to self-improvement including apps for counting calories, the number of steps climbed daily, and dozens of heart rate and weight reduction monitors. There are even apps that allegedly will increase your sex drive and ones that will help you become a nicer person. However, technology has little to do with keeping your resolutions, but it certainly can help you stay on track.
The key motivational principle or the “theory” behind all of these applications is the ubiquitous research findings from education and psychology related to self-regulation of behavior. Similar to self-control, self-regulation is the active process one uses to plan, monitor, control, and reflect on behaviors and accomplishments. Thinking about what you are doing before, during, and after exhibiting a behavior generates self-feedback, which in turn helps accelerate performance. Self-regulation relies on the concept of keeping people actively involved in what they are doing, with most technology applications essentially reminding the person to think about their goals while recording their progress. The advantage of using technology is reliable recordkeeping, but you can attain the exact same benefits by merely monitoring your own progress and keeping charts of your incremental progress. Regardless of how you assess your behavior, when individuals actively monitor goal progress they are more likely to be successful than when they do not (Winne & Hadwin, 2008).
Failure is part of success
Steven King’s first novel Carrie was rejected 30 times before it was finally published, Stephen Spielberg was kicked out of film school three times, and Walt Disney was once fired as a newspaper reporter because he lacked imagination! In all likelihood, failing to keep your resolutions in the past is often a necessary pre-requisite to eventually attaining success. But there is a catch! Earlier I mentioned that the celebrities I interviewed for Motivation for Learning and Performance relied upon social support for their success, but they also universally acknowledged they were NOT embarrassed or ashamed to admit when they failed. However, mistakes were not the key to their success, it was how they responded to adversity. Each individual from the highly motivated investment advisor Bernie Madoff to superstar Nick Lowery, who retired from the NFL with the most field goals in league history, saw mistakes as opportunities to learn and do things differently, rather than as a reason to feel defeated or inadequate.
Although we should realistically expect obstacles on the path of success, motivational science indicates that those individuals who believe in themselves will consistently outperform those with similar skills, but who lack confidence in their abilities. Known as self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997), we must have faith in our ability to execute courses of action that will help attain our goals. Confidence doesn’t mean blind optimism, but instead self-assurance means you know which strategies lead to your personal success and which do not, you are motivated to use your strategy knowledge, and you think you can be successful. The power of optimism is so strong that in one study where participants were required to complete a box-folding task, participants who believed (or were told) that their regulatory ability was an unlimited resource outperformed a comparison group of individuals who believed that self-regulatory ability decreased as effort was expended (Job, Dweck, & Walton, 2010). The interesting conclusion from the study was that even when physically exhausted (as measured by glucose reduction) there was no reduction in effort from the "believing group" because individuals felt they had the horsepower to complete the task, despite spending just as much energy as the "non-believers."
Which option will you choose?
So it seems we have some choices for the New Year. Turning the calendar can be seen as a time of renewal and growth, or acceptance of the things we might be able to change, if circumstances were different. What many people fail to realize is what they can control. We can choose to settle for a life of complacency and sit back and watch what happens. Alternatively, we can take an agentic approach and orchestrate the course of our lives. Using the scientifically-verified steps of deliberate planning, setting attainable targets, amassing a support network, and allowing ourselves to fail without passing judgment can go along way toward being the person we want to be, next year and for many more.
If you want to be successful in 2016 try the 2-hour video course based on my book Motivation for Learning and Performance. As a Psychology Today reader you can take the course for only $29.00 by using this coupon code. Give the gift of inspiration to yourself and the people you care about!
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: Freeman.
Gino, F., Schweitzer, M. E., Mead, N. L., & Ariely, D. (2011). Unable to resist temptation: How self-control depletion promotes unethical behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Process, 115(2), 191–203.
Hoffman, B. (2015). Motivation for Learning and Performance. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Job, V., Dweck, C. S., & Walton, G. M. (2010). Ego depletion—is it all in your head?: Implicit theories about willpower affect self-regulation. Psychological Science, 21(11), 1686–1693.
Muraven, M. (2012). Ego depletion: Theory and evidence. In R. M. Ryan (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of human motivation (pp. 111–126). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Winne, P. H., & Hadwin, A. F. (2008). The weave of motivation and self-regulated learning. In D. H. Schunk & B. J. Zimmerman (Eds.), Motivation and self-regulated learning: Theory, research, and applications (pp. 297–314). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
Wolters, C. A., & Hussain, M. (2015). Investigating grit and its relations with college students’ self-regulated learning and academic achievement. Metacognition and Learning, 10(3), 293-311.