What’s on your list of resolutions this New Year? Are you planning to lose weight? Are you going to be kinder, or perhaps less argumentative on social media? Do you aim to get rich, or even to find The One?
Like millions of people across the world, you’ve probably conditioned yourself to think that this year will be YOUR year. That you’ll be awesome and excellent and super cool, and that the blueprint to your success this year is that list of resolutions you have in your hand.
However, chances are this isn’t the first year you’ve prepared a list of resolutions for yourself. And if you somehow manage to stick to that list by the end of the year, you can count yourself among an astoundingly small percentage of the world’s population that did the same thing.
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology took a look at 200 Americans who made New Year’s resolutions over 2 years. The result? 77% managed to stick to their self-promises for one week. By the end of the second year, less than a fifth of the New Year’s resolvers were still hanging on to their resolutions.
We Filipinos are particularly fond of making lists we want to change about our lives each time a new year rolls in. “New Year, new me,” we’d say, or “I will own <insert year here>!” So why do we keep falling back to the same awful eating habits, paralyzing laziness, poor spending choices, and toxic relationship behaviors that we keep swearing we’d leave behind in the previous year? Here are five likely reasons, backed by psychology.
You think that changing one aspect of your life this New Year will solve everything.
This is by far the simplest and most common reason we fail at sticking to our New Year goals. We fall prey to the mistaken notion that everything can be simplified to a mere cause-and-effect relationship. Wanting happiness, for example — which is, in itself, is vague and unquantifiable — almost certainly requires more than just trying to lose weight or finding additional sources of income. When you do succeed and realize that you still aren’t completely happy, the next course of action tends to be giving up and reverting to the very habits you sought to change in the first place. Ergo, failed resolution.
You may be aiming too high.
Sometimes, it may simply be a question of whether or not you set an irrationally high goal for yourself. “Becoming as rich as Bill Gates,” for instance, is certainly something to aspire for. However, the chances of you falling short are also (sadly) quite high.
Instead of focusing on raising the ceiling, aim for things that you can more realistically achieve. According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, setting small but rewarding goals may make it less likely for you to stray from your objectives than setting a lofty goal with a high-stakes reward.
You could, for example, aim to lose 40 pounds in time for summer, but that might lead you to embrace a dramatically different (and unsatisfying) diet that will make you less motivated to continue. Or you could aim to lose 1 to 2 pounds a week with the right diet and exercise, and give yourself a nice pat on the back after you check the weighing scale every Saturday and see that your slow-but-steady approach is working.
You don’t actually believe in what you say you want to do.
According to behavioral psychologist Susan Weinschenk, your “self-story” — how you perceive yourself and what you value — will likely drive your actions and decisions. Thus, if you create a list of New Year’s resolutions that run in complete contrast to what you believe in, you will have a hard time accepting what you need to do to get to where you want to be. This way, you are inadvertently setting yourself up for failure.
This is also known as the false hope syndrome — unrealistic expectations of changing oneself. The resulting damage may even be twice as brutal, as failure will make your self-worth go out the window along with your broken resolution.
This year, Tess realized that she doesn’t believe in sugar-free.
You might be running towards your goal, but losing sight of the bigger picture.
In an article for Harvard Business Review, CEO Peter Bregman presents the idea of setting an area of focus instead of a specific, measurable, and time-bound goal. According to Bregman, narrow goals have the possibility of putting too much pressure on the goal-setter, leading them to resort to unsavory means just to reach that goal. In that sense, the goal would backfire; as Bregman put it, “Yes, we often reach the goal, but at what cost?”
In contrast, an area of focus would make the journey towards the goal more enjoyable. You’d be less likely to miss steps along the way, and you wouldn’t be tempted to rush things just to get to where you want to be. Plus, you’ll grow as a person, too.
You aren’t ready to change, period.
It’s also entirely possible that, despite your best efforts, you’re just not ready yet. According to psychology professor Timothy Pychyl from Canada’s Carleton University, New Year’s resolutions are a kind of “cultural procrastination.” By setting goals “this year” – whether it’s to start eating healthy, quit smoking, or stop buying expensive shoes – you are making a promise to reinvent yourself at some point in the future, while simultaneously disregarding your sense of urgency. You don’t have to change right now — you have all year to do that. And when you’re not ready to change, no matter how well-intentioned your goals are, you will definitely fail.
Now, that’s not to say that “I’m not ready” is a valid excuse for you to stay exactly the way you are. What this means is that if you know that you need to change something right away, but are somehow willing to put it off for an indeterminate point between January 1 and December 31, you might want to assess if you’re in the proper mindset to change in the first place.
“Ugh! Billy, you insensitive jerk! you promised you wouldn’t kick the pieces whenever I beat you at chess! How do you think this makes me feel?”
“Well, what can I say, Bob? Guess I just have a wooden heart.”
The secret to preventing yourself from failing to keep your New Year’s resolutions? Think hard about what you want to change and what you can change. If it’s urgent, don’t wait for December; do it now. Otherwise, figure out an efficient yet enjoyable way to get there.
Or just don’t make any resolutions. Works for a lot of folks, doesn’t it?
Author: Mikael Angelo Francisco
Bitten by the science writing bug, Mikael has years of writing and editorial experience under his belt. As the editor-in-chief of FlipScience, Mikael has sworn to help make science more fun and interesting for geeky readers and casual audiences alike.