The first of January is a fresh start for many of us. Like the two headed Roman god Janus, from which January gets its name, we often use New Year as an opportunity to look both back at the year that has past and forward into the one ahead. Many of us find ourselves using the process of reflection, introspection and self examination to set ourselves goals and resolutions for the year ahead. It is a time where people flock to the gym, vowing to be “better”, “healthier” and “stronger” versions of themselves! Some of the most common resolutions include losing weight, increasing our exercise, quitting smoking and saving money. But by the end of the month, the majority of us will have failed to keep to our resolution. Understanding what can help us to succeed might help us defy the odds.
Why is it so challenging?
The truth is that very few of us achieve success in keeping the resolutions that we make for ourselves at the beginning of the year. Only 9% of people felt they succeeded in achieving their resolutions in 2017. Indeed by the middle of January a third of us will have already forgotten, or given up, on the resolutions we made two weeks previously. So, what is it that makes maintaining a New Year’s resolutions so difficult?
Part of the challenge is that with New Years Resolutions in particular we are generally making decisions about our future based on our current state. Another part of the problem is the availability of numerous temptations. The fact that we respond more strongly to rewards that are available right now than to rewards we receive in the future makes it increasingly difficult for us to abstain. Therefore the energy and focus to maintain our resolutions are not only required on January 1st but also in the days and weeks that follow. Think back to when you made past New Year’s resolutions. You were most likely feeling relaxed and few of the day-to-day pressures that make keeping resolutions were present. For example, the difficulty of attending the gym during a hectic day is underestimated because the resolution is made during a more relaxed time.
It is not just the practical difficulty of sticking to resolutions that is underestimated. People also commonly underestimate the strength of the future cravings and desires. Underestimating the availability if temptation and the power of our desire can lead to a lot of potential pitfalls.
How Can We Do Better?
Get some social support. Giving up something whether it is sugar, alcohol or cigarettes can seem like a near impossible task at times given the sheer volume of desire and temptation that you will have to face and overcome. Yet in the month of Ramadan over 1.5 billion Muslims manage to abstain from eating anything at all in daylight hours. What can we learn from this collective abstinence? Social support can be an incredibly positive and motivating force in helping us to stick to our resolutions. In Ramadan everyone shares common goals and therefore as a culture temptations are minimised and everyone supports each other through challenging times. Use this to your own advantage by garnering social support and strengthening your commitment by telling everyone what you plan to do and how you plan to do it.
Know your pitfalls and plan to stay in control. Reflect on typically what temptations, situations or triggers put you at risk of falling back into your old habits. Address them and develop a strategy for managing them. If you know they are coming up then plan ahead and implement your strategies for overcoming or circumventing your triggers.
Keep your focus on the short term. Unlike Ramadan making New Years resolutions focuses on implementing change over a 12 month period rather than on a shorter term goal. Human beings however have a tendency to discount or devalue rewards that we must wait for, a phenomenon known as delay discounting. Therefore, the longer it is that you have to wait to receive a reward, the less likely you are to value it. Thus, for example, the long-term desire to lose weight and feel stronger at the end of the year is pitted against the desire for the immediately available temptation of snacks and sweet treats. In order to overcome our natural tendency to dismiss longer term rewards over more immediate temptations try setting yourself a goal for today or this week, rather than for the year. Think of it as a new year plan rather than a resolution and begin with a plan that works from something small and immediate up to something bigger and longer term. Focusing on the positive outcomes of achievements of your goal in the shorter term is much more motivating and easier to stick to.
Ultimately, when you hear those bells chime, it is worth setting yourself a New Years resolution. It is not in fact a waste of time and energy as you are ten times more likely to achieve your goal if you make a resolution than if you do not. If you do loose your way half way into January try to be kind to yourself in your defeat. Research shows that one of the biggest obstacles to developing new habits is self-criticism. Study after study shows that self-criticism is correlated with less motivation and worse self-control. Whether you are winning and staying on track or you find yourself wandering far from the path you agreed with yourself on the first of January show yourself some compassion. And remember that changing your behaviour, or some aspect of it, does not have to be restricted to the start of the New Year…you can choose to change at any time.