At this time of year, it’s almost impossible to have a conversation without hearing about someone’s New Year’s resolutions. “New Year, New You!” articles and seminars abound, and if you’re not making commitments to change at least one bad habit or unhealthy behavior, you may feel as if the entire world is going to get its act together in 2017 and leave you behind.
Not to worry, resolutions are far from all they’re cracked up to be. If they worked successfully, we wouldn’t need to make them every year, would we? Resolutions don’t work long-term because we make them only for things we don’t much care to do in the first place. We believe that the act of proclaiming and committing will somehow overcome our antipathy to engage in doing things we half-heartedly wish to do and magically transport us to the kingdom of success.
Think about it: When we want to do something, we do it. If I told you that you had a check for $2.5 million dollars ready for pick up at the lottery office, would you really need to make a resolution to get yourself there? Would you need to enter it onto your phones’ to-do list? Hardly. Even the act of making resolutions is fraught with negativity because we associate it with doing things that are uncomfortable, arduous, and don’t bring us much pleasure in their own right. This association is strong enough to make resolving to do things that are healthy nearly useless, as best intentions begin to self-destruct within a few weeks’ or months’ time.
Research tells us that we push ourselves to commit to goals for eating, exercise, chores, financial security, etc. because it’s a way to try to overcome our doubts that we’ll succeed and it gives us a transitory feeling of hope and certainty, much like a guarantee of success. Leslie Downing, PhD, former professor of social psychology at the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Oneonta, New York, has this to say about making commitments, which are the basis of resolutions. “We don’t make them to reach goals which are easily achieved. Basically, there’s no need to. If it’s easy and sensible, we just do it. Instead, we make commitments to things we don’t know are possible, but hope or wish they were. For example, custom aside, uncertainty is the reason we feel a need to ‘commit’ to marriage: Because we can’t see into the future and know we’ll live happily ever after, we make a pledge in order to convince ourselves that it will happen.”
Most of us recognize how oriented we are toward immediate gratification and how averse we are to discomfort. We’re wired that way because that’s how humans evolved to survive. You’re not crazy when you consider heading to the gym after work, then end up sitting on your living room couch all evening channel surfing. Or when you grab two nutrition bars for dinner rather than cook a healthy, tasty meal. The driver of gratification now rather than later is the pleasure-sensing chemical dopamine, which conditions your brain to repeatedly want the same pleasure/reward. In fact, it works like computer cookies to track our pleasures, guilty or otherwise, and prompt us to continue to do activities that we enjoy. Dopamine is the primary force in establishing a habit because, as science tells us, neurons that fire together, wire together.
Fortunately, ditching the idea of resolutions doesn’t mean that you can’t improve your lot. You can, by using these techniques:
- Honestly assess your motivation. If it’s high, how could you ramp it up even higher? If it’s low, identify why that is and re-adjust your environment or beliefs in order to boost your enthusiasm to at least 80% pro and 20% con.
- Resolve mixed feelings about pursuing your goals. Fear and discomfort often trump desire so, rather than insist that you’re 100% behind your goals, one by one identify and eliminate your internal and external barriers to success.
- Use rituals to form habits. Do the same thing the same way at the same time in the same place every day, whether it’s cleaning the house on Saturday morning or taking an evening bike ride.
- Don’t aim for perfection which promotes all-or-nothing, success-or-failure thinking. If you don’t engage in a new behavior all the time, lower your standards to 80% of the time. This will help you bounce back from relapse and promote resilience.
- Take a page from the psychology of success handbook and focus only on what you’ve achieved, not on what you didn’t do or have yet to do.
- Develop an internal, rather than an external, locus of control. Initially, reward yourself for baby steps, then shoot for engaging in positive habits because you love, value, and wish to take care of yourself. Nothing tastes better than pride and nothing feels better than a healthy mind and body.
- Rather than be hard on yourself because you think it will generate progress, shower yourself with self-compassion. It’s a far better motivator than self-denigration: Feeling badly about ourselves saps energy and feeling good is energizing.
Let other people share their resolutions, while you focus on these steps to success. By next year, you’ll be happier and healthier, while they’ll still be making a list of resolutions for 2018.