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 resolutions fail?
Researchers have looked at 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% 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, 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 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 the “false hope syndrome,” which means their 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-esteem.
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 you revert back to old behaviors.
Making resolutions work is essentially changing behaviors and in order to do that, you have to change your thinking and “rewire” your brain. Brain scientists such as Antonio Damasio and 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.
So, if you’re going to make New Year’s resolutions, here’s some tips to help you make them work:
- Focus on habits and work on one habit at a time
- Set realistic, specific goals. Focus on smaller habits related to your goal ie; “For two weeks I will try to add a half cup of protein rich veggies to each meal”
- Don’t wait till New Year’s eve to make resolutions. Make it a year long process, every day;
- Take small steps. Many people quit because the goal is too big requiring too big a step all at once;
- Have an accountability buddy, someone close to you that you have to report to; or hire a coach to guide you and be your partner and cheerleader
- Celebrate your success between milestones. And remember, successes have no limit. Was your goal to replace sugar sweetened beverages with water, but you only did that 3 times this week? Guess what? That’s a success, celebrate it and build from it!
- Focus your thinking on new behaviors and thought patterns. You have to create new neural pathways in your brain to change habits;
- Focus on the possible. What’s one new thing, or small change, you can do for just the next 30 days? If that seems difficult, then what can you do for just the next 2 weeks?
- 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. We all will slip sometimes, that’s life, but if we have been focused on our habits it is easy to redirect our energies as quickly as the next meal.