23 days into 2016 and I still haven’t started some of my ‘resolutions’ I had in mind for the new year. New year new me, right? So I hoped and thought.
But when I sat down and reflected on the last few years to see the success of my projected plans made in the new year, I found a disheartening lack of resolved resolutions. This prompted me to read a few articles on the subject.
I was reassured to see that I am not alone. That about a quarter of us who make resolutions seem to lose our steam a mere week later. Recent research showed that an approximate 29.7 million NY resolutions were made at the start of this year. 17% were dropped within a week, 6% didn’t even last a day!
Maybe you’re reading this and had high hopes of exercising 5 times a week. For the first three days you were pumping that iron and sculpting your new booty, feeling like a Greek goddess post workout. But on day 4 your willpower had reached its wits and you were back on the couch eating 5 packs of Zappos in 20 minutes and ordering a 5 dollar domino pizza for your party for one. I may or may not be describing myself right now.
It led me to think maybe I’m approaching this wonderful idea of self improvement and change the wrong way. Was there a problem with the institutionalised approach to change that is ‘new year’s resolutions’?
The short answer is yes, most of us, me included, have little idea how to create plans for practical and reasonable change. We set ourselves up for failure from the very beginning by creating these momentous and grandiose sounding resolutions that seem amazing in theory, but the manner in which we tell ourselves and even others of our grand plans can be the very reason we cannot complete them. I wanted to really understand why the fail rate was so high so that I could develop some tactics to counter this and reach my goals.
There’s a phenomenon known as the ‘false hope syndrome’. This way of thinking has been studied by academics at well recognized institutions like Harvard. It’s basically the belief that self change is easy. In this mindset, we set unrealistically high expectations for ourselves including a lot of extremely unsustainable plans for change. For example, wanting to cut down sugar intake and saying ‘I will NOT have coke at ALL starting in 2016’.
Whilst wanting to do this is absolutely fine, and positive change is encouraged, attempting to go cold turkey on something assumes failure is not an option in the path to change. These types of resolutions also fail to address the very much ingrained attitudes underlying emotional processes or problematic behaviours that lead to the undesired action or behaviour. For example, I tend to overeat in times of great emotional stress or pre-menstrually (aka period rage aka don’t come near me or I will bite your head off).
The reality is the behaviours we are trying to break are stubborn and tend to be intrinsically re-inforcing in nature. It helps explain why 88% of all resolutions end in failure.
In comes the concept of willpower. Society has perpetuated willpower as a character trait rather than a finite resource. But actually willpower is best equated to a muscle in our body. Say you are doing some bicep curls and pumping it out. Then you get to rep 12 and things start to burn a little (a lot). Your muscle is basically screaming ‘piss off’ due to extreme fatigue. There is a point where the muscle can’t exert itself anymore for the anticipated load. And it conks out.
Similarly, our willpower has its limits and this has been well studied too. Our willpower is activated in an area of our brain we call the prefrontal cortex (also responsible for focus, handling short term memory and solving abstract problems). ‘Cognitive load’ is the fancy way to describe the muscle analogy, where the tired brain, preoccupied and saturated with its problems, is going to struggle to resist what it wants.
So with this information collectively, we can see that New Year resolutions are really the wrong way to approach change. They call for big changes to be made all at once, using all our willpower reserve in a non-sustainable or unrealistic fashion. If we keep hammering this we are definitely going to become part of the statistics for the subsequent year.
Luckily all this research has enabled us to develop better patterns and approaches to our motivation for change that can create real results. Here are a few based on this evidence previously mentioned on how to set goals into motion in an achievable and sustainable way.
1. Try creating ‘rules’
This is probably the foundation that will assist you in the other tactics. Rules don’t need to be rigid and punishable. They just enable a scaffold or trajectory for you to follow in order to slowly achieve your goals rather than a concept up in the air that can seem overwhelming. For example, I want to learn Spanish, so my rule is I must practice DuoLingo Spanish every morning on the way to work in the car. I also want to practice being more mindful, so I also must do 10 minutes of mindfulness a day in the morning with my app. I want to tone up, so I must do 30 minutes of exercise after work and try and replace my drinks with water. By setting rules in place at set times or after set events during my regular day, I am slowly rewiring my brain to make this routine and the new norm. I find this is a great place to start.
2. Set fewer resolutions in the first week
‘Bad habits are hard to break—and they’re impossible to break if we try to break them all at once’. Some people (myself included) think they are capable of creating major change in every facet of their life at once. I am talking improving fitness, getting more sleep, working harder on my blog, trying to get into a training program, trying to be a social butterfly… This is wonderful. But if you try to change everything at once, you will burn out and demotivate yourself. Setting a small number of goals to achieve in your first week doesn’t make you less ambitious or driven for change. It will set you up for feeling successful in approaching the rest of your resolutions for the year.
3. Break big goals into small achievable tasks with a clear plan
Research showed that 1/3 of people fail with resolutions because they don’t make a clear plan. Mum always told me to break things into bite sized chunks. Its not a new concept, but an often overlooked one. Remember K.I.S.S. ? Practical actions on a daily basis are key to achieving big tasks. It’s little wins that lead to the strengthening og resolve and willpower that are required in rewiring your brain to take the subsequent steps to achieving a large goal. For example, Mark Zuckerberg made a promise to run 365 miles in a year. And whilst this number appear daunting at first, it really only is, as he highlighted, a mile a day.
4. Share your goals
Being accountable to someone minimizes the tendency we have as humans to drift back into old habits and avoid really making the necessary changes to your life. Sharing your goals is a great way to strengthen the commitment to yourself that you are in it for the long run and someone you trust will have your back along the way.
5. Eat well
An experiment by Professor Baumeister in 2007 found that students who fasted for 3 hours before performing self-control tasks had significantly lower glucose levels than those who didn’t have to exert self-control suggesting willpower requires real energy. To be effective at controlling our urges and making sound decisions, the prefontal cortex (that makes decisions and is home of willpower), needs to be cared for. That means feeding it with good-quality food so it has enough energy to do its job and getting enough sleep. So I know a lot of you want to lose weight, but just remember that any extreme diets might actually be counterintuitive to your long term goals!
6. Examine your attitudes & ditch deadlines
Practice mindfulness in your daily life. Make a decision to change the way things are right NOW and switch from unconsciousness and going through the motions to being aware and in control of your thoughts and actions. Being in tune with your thoughts will help in enhancing productivity. Rather than pushing the goal away into the future, bring it into consciousness and into the now. Think about the goal, the problems and things that may get in the way of you achieving this, understand what these are and what needs to be done, then implement the steps to change.
7. Remember failing is an option
Failure is not a negative outcome. As humans we ebb and flow with all things in our life and failure isn’t reason to abandon a goal. It’s merely a time to reassess the approach and the reasons why you may have fallen off the wagon. Accepting failure as the ultimate destination is not an option. Don’t be so harsh on yourself, think about the times you were successfully on the road to change and remind yourself of your capacity and strength to do so. Use your times of greater motivation to implement protective measures in times where your resolve is not so great! Each time you fail, you get a little better at succeeding and restart a bit higher up the tier than before!