The Science of Failed New Year Resolutions
So, 2019 is upon us, and for many of us that means it’s time for New Year's resolutions. But, as you approach that blank page, full of enthusiasm and dreams of the healthy, wealthy and accomplished new you you’re going to become, we’ve got one tactless question to ask…
… How did your 2018 New Year's resolutions work out?
Did you run that marathon, learn that language, read two books every week?
If you did – well done. Seriously, take a bow! You’re pretty special. Science puts the success rate for sticking to New Year's Resolutions at … somewhere around 12%.
We know that sounds depressing. So should you tear up that list of goals, abandon your dreams and give up on self-improvement? Not just yet. First you should know what science has to say about failed New Year's Resolutions.
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What is will power?
Until recently psychologists theorized willpower was a finite resource, like power in a battery. Once it was used up, you’d have to somehow “recharge” before you could produce any more. However, in 2016 attempts to replicate the results of studies that supported this view of willpower failed.
It may be harder to act on your resolutions if you’re tired, but there’s no longer any reliable evidence that willpower exists as a separate resource from your general level of energy. Further, believing that willpower is limited seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to a study led by Katharina Bernecker from the University of Zurich, found that people who believe that willpower is an abundant and self-replenishing procrastinate less, are less likely to fall prey to unhelpful habits and achieve higher grades at exams. They’re also simply happier – which is hardly surprising if success comes to them so easily!
What if willpower is an emotion instead of a resource? We don’t worry about running out of sadness, happiness or love. We also don’t expect ourselves to be joyously happy in a dire situation, or to love someone who isn’t right for us. And yet we expect to be able to produce willpower almost regardless of our circumstances. What if instead of just trying to force ourselves to stick to our goals, we tried to build the conditions that would make it easy?
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What’s stopping you?
No, it’s not a rhetorical question. The answer isn’t “nothing! Just go for it!” Whatever New Year's resolutions you want to achieve, you’d have already done it if something wasn’t making it difficult. If the obstacle isn’t within you, in the form of an innate lack of willpower, then where is it?
Say you want to do 30 minutes of yoga every morning before you go to work, but you can’t stop yourself hitting the snooze button over and over until there’s no time left. But why is getting up so hard?
When you think about it, it’s obvious. You’re tired. If you’d had as much sleep as you needed, getting up at 6.30 wouldn’t be any harder than getting up at 7. But as long as your resolution is in conflict with your body’s need for sufficient sleep, sticking to your plan is only going to get harder and harder until eventually you give up. In fact, in these circumstances you should give up, as in the long-term the negative effects of fatigue are bound to outweigh any benefits you get from the yoga.
So before you start working on your salute to the sun in the mornings, you need to plan your evenings. How are you going to get to bed 30 minutes earlier? Maybe it’s just a matter of setting an alarm to remind you each evening that it’s time to start winding down. But it may mean you have to give something up. Would you need to stop reading in bed, spend less time seeing your friends? How do you feel about those potential losses? Once you know what your resolution requires, you should get a sense of how much it actually means to you.
Alternatively, if you’re just not a morning person, why not plan your yoga for some other time of day? Remember we’re looking for ways to make this easy. Could you start a lunchtime group session at work, perhaps, or attend a class in the evening?
The power of habit
Resolutions like “get fit” or “write a novel” often fail because they’re just too vague – they don’t include a realistic plan on how to reach the goal. Trapped in a cycle of guilt, exhaustion and uncertainty, you may never get started or else push yourself too hard, too fast, and then give up.
But what if it was as easy as cleaning your teeth?
According to Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California, around 43% of what we do each day is down to habit, carried out without needing to struggle or think about it. Habits are hard to break, as people whose resolutions involve giving up smoking or cutting back on unhealthy foods know only too well. But if that power is working for you rather than against you, then your goals can become almost effortless.
Often we’re advised to make positive habits more appealing by rewarding ourselves for carrying them out. A nice bubble bath, perhaps, or a soothing cup of herbal tea. But author Stephen Guise argues this approach is a mistake. It makes you feel as if the behavior is only worth doing for the sake of the reward, prompting you to overlook any intrinsically pleasurable aspects of the task itself. It gives you an out – if you don’t actually care that much about receiving the reward this time, maybe you needn’t bother with the behavior. “It makes the reward into a tool, and the behavior into a means to an end,” Guise says. “It cheapens them both.” Research supports this view: in a study by Mark R. Lepper and David Greene from Stanford and the University of Michigan, children who were promised a reward for drawing actually spent less time drawing than children who expected nothing.
If all that wasn’t reason enough to be skeptical, rewarding yourself for positive habits simply makes the whole process more complicated. Not only have you got to write a thousand words, do fifty push-ups or learn twenty new verbs, you’ve got to think up the reward in the first place, then make sure you never run out of bath products, scented candles or the time to enjoy them!
Instead, Guise suggests you should start by shrinking down the habit you’d like to acquire until it’s “stupid small”. Try telling yourself you’ll write fifty words a day, or do one push up. Sure, it sounds ridiculous, but right now you’re not doing anything towards your goal – even the tiniest bit of progress is better than that! But you’ll usually find that once you’ve got started, you’ll do more than you planned. But even if you don’t, the point of aiming this small teaches your brain that your new habit is easy. And instead of rewarding yourself with some unrelated indulgence, the pleasure of succeeding at the task itself will keep you coming back to it, day after day, until the habit is wired into your brain and you no longer have to think about it.
How can you get rid of the obstacles between you and your New Year’s Resolution? What are the habits you need to build? It's never too late to learn a language so why not start today and book an English course this year.