The start of the New Year is often the perfect time to turn a new page in life, which is why so many people make New Year’s resolutions. But only 8-10 per cent are able to keep them.
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 percent 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 procastrination” 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 Obsesity Network, is that people set unrealistic goals and expectations in their resolutions.
Making resolutions work involves changing behaviors—and in order to change a behavior, you have to change your thinking (or “rewire” your brain). Brain scientists such as Antonio Damasio, 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.
Peter Bregman argues “When we set goals, we’re taught to make them specific and measurable and time-bound. But it turns out that those characteristics are precisely the reasons goals can backfire. A specific, measurable, time-bound goal drives behavior that’s narrowly focused and often leads to either cheating or myopia. Yes, we often reach the goal, but at what cost?”
Bregman advocates creating an area of focus rather than goals, and goes on to say that “An area of focus taps into your intrinsic motivation, offers no stimulus or incentive to cheat or take unnecessary risks, leaves every positive possibility and opportunity open, and encourages collaboration while reducing corrosive competiton. All this while moving forward on the things you and your organization value most.”
These are some of the tips scientists give us to help keep New Year’s resolutions:
- Focus on one resolution, rather several and set realistic, specific goals. Losing weight is not a specific goal. Losing 10 pounds in 90 days would be;
- 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 much effort and action all at once;
- Have an accountability buddy, someone close to you to whom you have to report;
- Celebrate your success between milestones. Don’t wait the goal to be finally completed;
- 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 present. What’s the one thing you can do today, right now, towards your goal?
- Be mindful. Become physically, emotionally and mentally aware of your inner state as each external event happens, moment-by-moment, rather than living in the past or future.
And finally, 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.