Why New Year Resolutions Don’t Work
I HATE new years resolutions. To be completely honest, I feel like resolutions are an excuse not to set and reach goals throughout your year or as needed.
You know if you have a habit you need to break or a new habit you need to start. So do it! Do it now! Do it when you realize it’s a need. Don’t wait until the end of the year to make drastic changes that you won’t actually commit to.
I see it all the time, people say things like….this year, I won’t eat carbs, this year, i’ll stop smoking, this year, I’ll workout…..whatever that thing is...it will be a focus for maybe the first few weeks of the year and after that, it will go in the bucket with all the other resolutions that were never successfully met.
Resolutions don’t work for 4 reasons.
1. They’re all about what you think you should do.
Like I said….Stop smoking? Start exercising? Eat healthily? More work/life balance?
These all sound good on the surface, but typically a resolution is based on what you think you should be doing, rather than what you really want to be doing.
Too often, resolutions are decided upon by looking at other peoples expectations or by reading a magazine that tells you how to ‘get fit by summer’.
Nonsense – forget about what you or other people think you ought to be doing and look at what you really want.
2. Resolutions are like goals.
Some resolutions are like goals in that they’re about getting more of something. The problem is that as soon as you set yourself a goal you’re saying to yourself that you want more in your life than you have right now.
The very nature of goals makes you look forward to what’s next, never at what you’ve got right now.
Goals have the tendency to make you feel less-than, because there’s something you don’t have now that you aspire to have in the future. Goals introduce a gap between where you are and where you’d like to be, which instantly makes part of where you are right now a place you don’t want to be – and this is how the very nature of having goals can hurt your self-confidence and self-esteem.
And ya’ll know I love me some goals! But most people don’t know how to set goals realistically and interpret their goals as something that is positive, but instead a measuring tool that shows you where you’re falling short.
The real gold and real value is in the experience, NOT in the end result. It’s in the process of always moving forward and giving yourself something to look forward to but also embracing where you are now.
3. There’s no motivation or commitment.
Over a third of resolutions don’t make it past January and over three quarters are abandoned soon after. The reason?
You guessed it! No commitment.
The problem is that you’re taking something that doesn’t mean anything to you and trying to make it happen.
Sure, you might get an initial burst of motivation that gets you started, but that never lasts. Motivation is like the big rocket boosters on the space shuttle – it gives you an initial spurt of energy to get up and get moving, but it’s just not sustainable.
What you need is something more fundamental, more central and more important to you. What you need is something that comes from the inside, something that’s based on what’s important and what matters most to you.
That’s the only way to get behind it, have confidence in it and keep the motivation and commitment going.
4. The timing’s all wrong.
Not only are you coming off the back of the holidays and getting back to the harsh realities of the world, but you see the whole of the year stretching ahead of you and summer’s a whole 6 months away.
And what kind of person waits all year to make a choice about something anyway? Why wait for one particular day to make a decision, when there are 364 other equally great decision-making days available to you?
So forget about making New Years Resolutions.
Instead, make confident choices based on what really matters to you, and fully commit!
How many New Year's resolutions have you made in your life? How many have you successfully accomplished? The estimate is that less than 10% of New Year's resolutions are actually achieved. There's a lot of advice out there this time of year about how to make sure you reach your New Year's goals, but I thought I'd share the actual science of how to change behavior.
There are two main lines of brain and behavior science that influence New Year's resolutions: The science of habits and the science of self-stories.
Let's start with the science of habits.
A lot of New Year's resolutions have to do with making new habits or changing existing ones. If your resolutions are around things like eating healthier, exercising more, drinking less, quitting smoking, texting less, being on social media less, spending more time "unplugged" or any number of other "automatic" behaviors then we are talking about changing existing habits or making new habits. Habits are automatic, "conditioned" responses. You get up in the morning shower, get dressed and eat breakfast. You go home at the end of workday and plop down in front of the TV or scroll on Instagram. Here's what you need to know about the science of changing existing habits or making new ones:
Contrary to popular opinion, it's not hard to change habits IF you do so based on science.
To change a new habit you essentially have to create a new one, so whether you are changing an existing habit or creating a new one, the "scientific" method for doing so is the same.
You have already created literally HUNDREDS of habits that you have now, and you don't even remember how they got started, so creating habits can't be that hard or you wouldn't have so many of them!
To create a new habit you have to follow these three steps:
You MUST pick a small action. "Get more exercise" is not small. "Eat healthier" is not small. This is a big reason why New Year's resolutions don't work. For example, instead of "Get more exercise" choose "Workout 1 more day each week" or "Take the stairs each morning to get to my office, not the elevator", or "Have a smoothie every morning with kale in it". These are relatively small actions.
You MUST attach the new action to a previous habit. Figure out a habit you already have that is well established, for example, if you already go for a brisk walk 3 times a week, then adding on 10 more minutes to the existing walk connects the new habit to an existing one. The existing habit "Go for walk" now becomes the "cue" for the new habit: "Walk 10 more minutes." Your new "stimulus-response" is Go For Walk (Sti mulus) followed by "Add 10 minutes." Your existing habit of "walk through the door at office" can now become the "cue" or stimulus for the new habit of "walk up a flight of stairs." Your existing habit of "Walk into the kitchen in the morning" can now be the stimulus for the new habit of "Make a kale smoothie."
You MUST make the new action EASY to do for at least the first week. Because you are trying to establish a conditioned response, you need to practice the new habit for at least a week before it will "stick" on its own. So it as EASY as possible. Write a note and stick it in your walking shoe that says "Total time today for walk is 30 minutes". Write a note and put it where you put your keys that says: "Today use the stairs." Put the kale in the blender and have all your smoothie ingredients ready to go in one spot in the refrigerator. Set your workout clothes right next to your bed and have your alarm set to a hype workout playlist. Do whatever you have to do to make it easy on yourself.
If you take these three steps and you practice them 3 to 7 days in a row your new habit will be established.
Now let's tackle the science of self-stories.
The best (and some would say the only) way to get a large and long-term behavior change, is by changing your self-story.
Everyone has stories about themselves that drive their behavior. You have an idea of who you are and what’s important to you. Essentially you have a "story" operating about yourself at all times. These self-stories have a powerful influence on decisions and actions.
Whether you realize it or not, you make decisions based on staying true to your self-stories. Most of this decision-making based on self-stories happens unconsciously. You strive to be consistent. You want to make decisions that match your idea of who you are. When you make a decision or act in a way that fits your self-story, the decision or action will feel right. When you make a decision or act in a way that doesn’t fit your self-story you feel uncomfortable.
If you want to change your behavior and make the change stick, then you need to first change the underlying self-story that is operating. Do you want to be more optimistic? Then you'd better have an operating self-story that says you are an optimistic person.
In a book called, Redirect, Timothy Wilson describes a large body of impressive research of how stories can change behavior long-term. One technique he has researched is "story-editing":
Write out your existing story. Pay special attention to anything about the story that goes AGAINST the new resolution you want to adopt. So for example, if your goal is to learn how to unplug and be less worried about social media, see what things are happening on a daily basis that align with your issues causing you to be all up in ya instagram.
Now re-write the story -- create a new self-story. Tell the story of the new way of being. Tell the story of the person who practices self care, has a great life-work balance, who uses social media on a healthy basis with boundaries because your time is better spent doing other things. Really narrate what those better things are. What does your life look like when you’re not so consumed by social media? What things are you doing and how are they benefiting you and your life?
The technique of story-editing is so simple that it doesn’t seem possible that it can result in such deep and profound change. But the research shows that one re-written self-story can make all the difference.
I've tried both of these techniques -- creating new habits using the 3-step method, and creating a new self-story. The research shows they work, and my own experience shows they work.
Give it a try. What have you got to lose? This year use science to create and stick to your New Year's resolutions. Stop listening to self help gurus that promote setting unrealistic goals and going after your dreams with an “all in mentality”.
Reaching real goals takes time and intentionality. So be realistic, make small changes that will ultimately lead you to the bigger picture and I promise, you will never miss setting another pointless new year resolution!