Every year that begins is a new opportunity. It represents a continuum and, at the same time, a turning point. The possibility of turning the page, closing a chapter and leading a better life pushes us to set new goals for the coming year. It is an almost universal practice. Just as it is universal that many of those New Year’s resolutions remain good wishes, plans that do not materialize and only leave a bad taste in our mouths. The problem? We make the same psychological mistake, year after year.
If we want to achieve a goal, it is not enough to know that it is important or it does us good
Research conducted at Cornell and Chicago Universities explained why most people don’t keep their New Year’s resolutions. These psychologists found that 55.2% of the resolutions were related to health, most of them focused on exercising more. 34.4% of the objectives were linked to work, such as saving, paying off debts or being more organized. On the other hand, 5.2% of people set social goals for the new year, such as spending more time with the family or enjoying life more.
When these researchers asked participants what the keys to accomplishing their New Year’s resolutions were, most gave equal importance to enjoyment as to the importance of the goal. However, in practice it was found that only enjoyment predicted long-term persistence.
That means we make a fundamental psychological mistake every time we set new goals for the New Year: Assuming that we’ll stick to the plan we’ve laid out just because we know those goals are important. Apparently, logical reasons are not enough, they do not have the necessary force to energize our behavior.
In practice, knowing that something is good for us is not always a sufficient reason to do it and make it a long-term habit. Instead, what can really keep us motivated over time is pleasure; That is, how much we enjoy the initial steps, whether it is establishing a new exercise routine, changing a diet, or learning a new skill.
How to accomplish New Year’s resolutions? The forced choice trick
According to another research conducted at the University of Maryland, to understand why New Year’s resolutions fail, we must pay more attention to the way we make the decision to do something. Basically, the greater the internal struggle – the conflict between what we should do and what we really want to do – the more likely it is that we will abandon our goals halfway.
If our New Year’s resolutions compete with other leisure activities, for example, and we have to make a conscious decision each day, we may end up throwing in the towel simply because we are too exhausted or think we deserve to do something we enjoy more, especially after a hard day or a week of work. In those moments, choosing something we don’t enjoy requires not only great mental effort but also enormous willpower and even undermines our sense of freedom.
As a result, it is not uncommon for us to end up following the “law of least effort” or letting ourselves be guided by old habits. For that reason, when we have to decide between watching a series or going for a run, it is likely that we opt for the first.
These researchers say that when it comes to setting important goals that we have thought about and that are beneficial, the trick is to stop perceiving them as just another option among a large number of leisure activities. They suggest that we assume them as a “forced choice,” which means that we need to structure our day or change our environment to help us foster that new habit. In other words, we don’t have to ask ourselves if we’ll go for a run or watch the series because the default option is the one we’ve decided on beforehand: physical activity.
The good news is that when the habit is formed, then it is not necessary to make that decision since it has been automated. Once we get into a routine, it begins to operate below the level of our awareness, so we don’t have to think about it too much. Then we just have to reap the benefits, which become a positive feedback loop that makes us feel better about ourselves and even allows us to enjoy it.
While that happens, to fulfill the New Year’s resolutions we need to look for incentives that help us enjoy the plan we have drawn up and remain faithful to that “forced choice”. For example, if we want to do more physical activity, we should choose a sport that really interests us, fits our personality and we can enjoy. If we want to diet, we should make sure to include some of our favorite flavors by adapting recipes that we like.
To fulfill New Year’s resolutions it also helps to give ourselves small short-term rewards, things that we enjoy and fit into the lifestyle we are building. That way we will achieve our goals more easily and we will feel more satisfied with ourselves.
Woolley, K. et. Al. (2017) Immediate Rewards Predict Adherence to Long-Term Goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin; 43(2): 151-162.
Iso-Ahola, S. (2017) Conscious-Nonconscious Processing Explains Why Some People Exercise but Most Don’t. Journal of Nature and Science; 3(6): e384.