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Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Last

What we can do to fulfill our resolutions this year.

An expression exists to describe why people decide differently between options that can be received right now or only after a certain delay: Temporal myopia.

What is located within a certain horizon of presence is more relevant for our actions. Whatever stands farther away, beyond a certain temporal horizon, receives less consideration. That is why the delicious cream cake on the plate in front of me right now has more power over me than the prospect of a trim body in future. This is why the prospect of working out now, which would mean a sacrifice at present for some future outcome, is less desirable than a lazy afternoon on the sofa binge-watching my favorite show.

The ‘now’ is experienced in a physical-visceral way: It is full of emotions. ‘Later’ is beyond the immediate experience and, thus, hypothetical. That is what temporal construal theory, by the psychologists Yaacov Trope and Nira Liberman, is about. Beyond felt presence, temporally removed events tend to be assessed abstractly and analytically, not in emotional terms. Events occurring closer in time are evaluated more in the concrete dimension of affect that concerns us here and now. Whatever is experienced in temporal proximity elicits a greater range of physical and affective reactions, which influence decision-making. Due to this temporal proximity, a temporally closer option elicits bodily states which have greater impact. We are more likely to prefer immediate gratification: I want it all, I want it now.

That is why it is so easy to formulate New Year’s resolutions. They are about the coming year. I don’t have to start exercising or stop smoking right now, but only after the holiday season when I am back in my daily life. That is not now but later. Analytically I know that I have to stop certain habits, that I have to change my life in certain ways. But when pressed to make these changes now, we fail only too often. The emotional now is stronger than the analytical later. When the later becomes the now, we change our mind. We continue with the habit we wanted to stop. We may say: I will stop later. The New Year’s Resolution becomes a January resolution, then a February resolution, etc.

As an aside, according to the American neurologist Antonio Damasio, choices almost never involve a strict alternative between reason and affect. Emotional assessments play a strong role in all decisions. It is the feelings — in unison with the sensation of time — that determine the value of the options for activity. The fear of an examination, even if it is still weeks away, may exercise a stronger influence on behavior than a temptation that is present here and now, as if, by the telescoping effect, the event seems much closer. As a consequence we sit down and read the books — the emotional prospect of the future demands us to study for the exam. Ultimately, reasons that speak for exercise, health, and physical fitness also receive an emotional assessment. Likewise, it is for emotional reasons — and counter to the tendency to seek comfort and convenience — that people will choose to work hard in order to achieve professional success later on; hereby, future status and income can act as motivating factors.

More generally speaking, we can talk about meaning as the driving factor for why people actually can overcome the strong emotional pressure of immediate urges and wishes. A meaningful life is what we all seek. That is why humans can make sacrifices at present for important future goals. That is what psychologist Jordan Peterson conveys in his books: Meaning is more important than impulsively consuming what you want. When you have a future-oriented goal you organize your life accordingly: You regulate your immediate impulses and act for the future benefit of yourself, your loved ones, and the world around you.

Meaning changes everything. Temptation is nevertheless ever present. A little trick can help us pursue our meaningful goals. Try it with routine: We have to embed behavior we aim for into our everyday schedule; everyday a little step. That’s how I got into the habit of doing yoga every day: I had wanted to start for years because I felt that with increasing age I became more and more stiff. I used to come home after work, and in order to wind down I lay on the sofa and read the papers. After I had once experienced the striking immediate effects of one yoga session I was invited to, I started to replace my routine sofa session after work with 30 minutes of yoga. The one-term experience was emotional as I felt the positive effects of bodily comfort. This positive feedback got me going. I have now practiced yoga for nearly two years and feel the positive long-term effects because I managed to place the exercise within my life routine. Another example: Say you want to learn Spanish. Try to embed the learning process in your daily routine, one word a day — at breakfast, on the subway to work, any time that suits you. One word only. That’s easy. But if you stick to that routine you will have learned 365 words after only one year. That is the power of routine for a meaningful goal. And that's the way you can actually fulfill your New Year’s resolution.

References

Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2003). Temporal construal. Psychological Review, 110, 403-421.

Damasio, A. R. (2006). Descartes' error. New York: Random House.

Peterson R. B. (2018). 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Random House Canada.

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