Despite New Year’s resolutions being a part of our culture for so long (even the ancient Babylonians made annual promises to their gods 4000 years ago), we’re still pretty terrible at sticking to them.
According to recent research, while as many as 45 percent of Americans say they usually make New Year’s resolutions, only 8 percent are successful in achieving their goals.
In fact, we’re so aware of our inability to stick with resolutions, we’ve committed 2 full days to our failures: Ditch Your Resolution Day on January 17th and Fall Off the Wagon day on February 4th.
We know that personal change is important. And turning the blank page into a new year seems like the perfect time to commit to change. Let’s look at a few reasons why it’s so hard to keep our resolutions and what we can be doing instead to better our chances of success.
Issue 1: New Year’s Resolutions focus on results, not processes
When you’re making a New Year Resolution, you’re really just setting a result for your future self. You’re saying, by this time next year I want to have lost 20 pounds or not be a smoker anymore.
There are 2 problems with this approach:
- We have a terrible ability to connect with our future selves: It’s easy to feel motivated to work towards your goal during the rush of the new year. But what about 2 weeks in? Or 2 months in? Setting a large goal doesn’t account for all of the things that will get in the way and how we’ll deal with them. It’s like having the worst kind of boss standing over you saying “I don’t care how you do it, just do it.”
- We place all our focus on the end goal and not how we’ll get there: Incremental improvements are the key to making real change. But New Year’s Resolutions are rarely about the day-to-day and more about the results. It’s easy to get off course without a plan or system in place to build the habits that will get you there.
Issue 2: New Year’s Resolutions rarely connect to our values
Whatever goal you’re going after, you need some way to stay motivated. Values and purpose are what keep us motivated when we feel like we just can’t go on. Unfortunately, New Year’s resolutions rarely connect to our values, but rather to some external or performance-based goal.
We want to switch jobs to make more money.
We want to lose weight to be more attractive.
While these results might seem like powerful motivators, they’re actually not. Researchers have found that the most powerful motivation comes from intrinsic motivation—the values and purpose that you already have.
Issue 3: New Year’s Resolutions are simply too big
We’ve all woken up in a haze at the end of the holiday season and promised to treat ourselves better. But setting huge goals, even if you think you have a year to complete them, is setting yourself up for failure.
When I surveyed a few hundred RescueTime users, barely 6.5% said their resolutions were successful, with most saying they quickly lost motivation or never hit their target.
Researchers call this false hope syndrome—where we’re overconfident in what can be achieved and then give up when we don’t see results fast enough.
What to do instead of making New Year’s resolutions
Now, this isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for not committing to change. There’s an ancient Chinese proverb that says:
“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
The New Year is still as excellent a time as any to start working towards the changes you want to make. And more important than when you start is how you go about changing your behavior.
Let’s look at some of the most powerful ways to work towards your goals for the next year:
Start by committing to a change that is ridiculously small and easy to do
It’s easy to see how we fall into false hope syndrome. Apps promise us mindfulness in just 10 minutes. Exercise programs claim we’ll drop 10 pounds in 3 weeks. Our brains are lazy and if we think we’ll get big results in little time, well, we’re going to go for it.
But these don’t work. Instead, you need to slowly work towards your goal 1 day at a time. Author James Clear calls this the aggregation of marginal gains:
“In the beginning, there is basically no difference between making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse. (In other words, it won’t impact you very much today.)
“But as time goes on, these small improvements or declines compound and you suddenly find a very big gap between people who make slightly better decisions on a daily basis and those who don’t.
“This is why small choices don’t make much of a difference at the time, but add up over the long-term.”
So, instead of making a big resolution of “Get more exercise” or “Write a novel”, start with 1% of that. For example, say you’ll take the stairs each morning instead of the elevator, or that you’ll write 200 words when you first wake up.
Then, make these new habits ridiculously easy to do. Put a sticky note on your shoes saying “take the stairs”, or close everything on your laptop except for a blank word doc so it’s the first thing you see in the morning.
Build on the good habits and behaviors you already have
While it’s always possible to rewire your brain, it obviously takes time.
The person you are now is the culmination of all the habits and behaviors you’ve picked up over your life. Your mind and body are used to who you are now, and changing them won’t come without a struggle. That’s why the best place to start is with what you already do.
For example, if you already go out for a brisk walk 3 times a week then add on 10 more minutes each day. This way, your “Go for a walk” habit you’ve built now becomes the cue for the new “walk 10 more minutes habit.”
This can work for anything you currently do.
If your goal is to read more, then instead of reading for 10 minutes before bed, say you’ll read for 20 or 30. If your goal is to eat healthier, say you’ll cook at home 5 nights a week instead of 3.
Goals are the results of what we do every single day. Do more of the good, and you’ll be closer to where you want to go.
Instead of changing your behavior, change your story
We all have a story about what kind of person we are and what’s important to us. We say “I’m the kind of person who tries new things” or “I don’t smoke.” And while these stories seem set in stone, they aren’t.
In his book, Redirect, psychology professor Timothy Wilson describes a large body of research on how we can use these stories to change behavior long-term. One technique in particular we can use when changing our behaviors is called “story-editing.”
Here’s how it works:
- Start by writing out your existing “story” as honestly as possible. This could be simple talking about who you are or a list of statements like “I am the kind of person who does X”.
- Pay special attention to anything in that story that goes against the new behaviors you want to build. For example, if you’re the kind of person who has late-night snacks, this goes against your goal of being healthier.
- Now rewrite the story. Use the same format, except this time say what you want your story to be. Tell the story of someone who has made the behavior changes you want to see.
It may seem too simple, but the researcher shows that this simple intervention can have long-lasting results. Author James Clear calls these identity-based habits, explaining that we need to define the identity we want before we can build the habit that will get us there.
Or, as Kurt Vonnegut put it:
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
This is the perfect time of the year to commit to making real change.
But if you want the best chance of actually seeing that change happen, don’t make it a resolution. Instead, focus on what you already have and the small steps you can take every day towards becoming more of the person you want to be.