For the last four years, I’ve had the same resolution come January 1: I will not get distracted by texting or perusing apps on my smartphone; I will stay present, in the moment.
Of course — evident by the fact that I keep setting it — I’ve come to realise it will take more than a revered annual tradition to break my habit. And I’m not the only one.
Don’t despair, you’re in good — or at least abundant — company
Many of us use the time before the New Year to set goals for ourselves that are difficult to keep, be it a promotion at work that never materialises, an exercise routine that proves too difficult to stick to come February, or a relationship goal that’s too obscure. In my case, I’d set a goal so difficult to measure that I’d probably feel like I failed even if I hadn’t. (To be completely honest, I’ve also skirted other resolutions involving my career and staying fit.)
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Don’t despair, you’re in good — or at least abundant — company. Research shows that only 8% of people who have made a New Year’s resolution were able to meet their goal, according to a study from the University of Scranton that was compiled by Statistic Brain.
“Right from the getgo [a resolution] has failure and procrastination built into it,” says Timothy Pychyl, associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, in Canada, whose research focuses on procrastination.
Feelings of failure
To be sure, people can benefit from setting goals during this time of year because of the advantages that come with sharing those resolutions with others (and then feeling obliged to at least try to meet them). But, in reality, New Year’s resolutions are notoriously difficult to follow.
Part of the problem is that we often choose the most unrealistic goals as resolutions under the false assumption that we can just “be a completely different person” in the New Year, says psychotherapist Rachel Weinstein, co-director of the Portland, Maine-based Adulting School, which teaches personal and financial skills to millennial-aged clients. The problem is further exacerbated when we hear about the outsized goals that our friends and colleagues set during this time of year, along with the marketing messages around this cultural phenomenon.
Holiday intentions are hollow intentions...we go from a gung-ho attitude to ‘this is too hard’
In reality, “changes happen in small steps over time,” Weinstein explains.
For many of us, making New Year’s resolutions backfires in ways we don’t even realise, says Joseph Luciani, a psychologist who focuses on self-coaching techniques in Cresskill, New Jersey, in the US. After a few unsuccessful attempts to stick to the resolutions, we’re left with only a feeling of failure that makes it difficult to feel we are living up to our own intentions in other ways, he says.
“Holiday intentions are hollow intentions...we go from a gung-ho attitude to ‘this is too hard’,” he says. Ultimately, we end up feeling more discouraged from setting new goals later in the year.
Secrets of success
If you’re serious about sticking to a goal in the New Year, start as soon as you can. Don’t wait for 1 Jan. Delaying serves as “a form of culturally-prescribed procrastination”, which means we feel good by describing our intended resolutions to whoever asks, but find it difficult to actually complete them in the New Year, Panych says. For example, purchase running shoes and go on short runs before fully committing to a resolution to run a marathon.
And be careful about telling friends before you’ve had success. Even without taking action toward a resolution, we can experience feelings of success by simply announcing our goals to complete them and showing off our ambition well before we’ve actually accomplished the goal, according to Panych’s research. “Sometimes, it’s the absolute worst thing you could do, to tell everyone, because it already gives you some kind of reward,” he says. “Present self-wins, future self-losses.”
Setting simpler goals
It might seem like selling your goals short, but if you truly want to achieve a resolution, set one that’s easy to tackle from day one. Better yet, says Weinstein, find one you can scale up to a more difficult resolution.
If you truly want to achieve a resolution, set one that’s easy to tackle from day one
For instance, adding a third day at the gym if you already work out twice a week. Success is more achievable and you’ll get the boost of self-esteem that will lead you to better follow through on more difficult goals. If a New Year’s resolution proves too easy, “there’s nothing wrong [with] adding a February addendum to the resolution,” she says.
Resolutions that are a “one-shot effort” can be easier to complete at certain times of the year, including the New Year, says Hengchen Dai, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Washington in St Louis in the US. Holidays — along with birthdays, the beginning of spring or the first day of the workweek — are a so-called temporal landmark that can boost a goal and inspire the promise of a fresh start, Dai says.
But if — like me — you’ve failed in the past, offer yourself some forgiveness, and resolve to be more realistic once it’s time to set new intentions. Rather than sticking to the same resolution, try a different approach that can strengthen what Luciani calls the self-discipline muscle and provide a sense of satisfaction with even the smallest success.
“Developing self-discipline is a process,” says Luciani. “The more you start to accumulate success the more you start to see yourself differently.”
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