Over 40 per cent of North Americans are making New Year’s resolutions this year. Twenty-five per cent of them will fail in less than 15 weeks. We must ask ourselves, why is this time old tradition of setting goals so hard to accomplish?
Resolutions have changed in leaps and bounds from the first rituals initiated by the Babylonians nearly 4,000 years ago, whose New Year’s resolutions mainly dealt with returning borrowed items to a friend, or, from the Roman tradition, of making peace with enemies at the beginning of a new calendar year.
Today’s resolutions typically focus on health, weight, finance and breaking our worst habits, which all require painstaking discipline and self-motivation. The truth is, most humans don’t have it. Particularly during the season of parties, family gatherings, gift giving and vacations.
Every year we make new resolutions, and every year we fail: what has to change?
Richard Koestner, a psychology professor at the McGill University and impassioned student of human goal-setting psychology, believes that New Year’s resolutions are a natural way of looking back at the previous year and outlining what needs to be changed in the coming year.
Although, Koestner supports the concept of New Year’s resolutions, he feels that the circumstances these lifestyle-altering changes are determined by are setting resolution-makers up for failure.
“People don’t think through enough why they’re setting a resolution and lots of times they set a resolution for something they feel guilty about or feel they should do. It’s really important to feel like you’re ready to do it and you’re really fully committed to it,” says Koestner, who points out that 40 to 50 per cent of Canadians fail to achieve the goals they’ve set for themselves.
“Setting the resolution is not enough,” continues Koestner, “just because you have a goal doesn’t mean you’re going to reach it. You actually have to go through a process where you prepare an implementation plan that specifies exactly how, where and when you’re going to pursue actions related to that goal.”
Koestner says that humans are only doted with so much self-discipline and that kicking a habit is no simple task.
“There’s good evidence that we have limited self regulatory strength, we are creatures of habit and if we are going to change our habits it’s going to take a lot of willpower and most of us have a limited amount of willpower, so that any kind of change will be effortful and difficult.”
The New Year Makeover
According to Koestner, modifying the how and when of New Year’s resolutions can help individuals achieve their goals.
“I’ve personally always felt that the 1st of January in Montreal is probably the worst time to change, because it’s kind of a difficult time of the year. There’s the snow, there’s the cold, you’re going back to school, it’s not the ideal conditions in which to feel you have a lot of energy to try and break habits and adapt new habits.”
Koestner believes this inherent failure of New Year’s resolutions also lies in the way most people choose their resolutions and the plans they fail to formulate ahead of time.
“I frame the problem of failure at New Year’s resolutions mostly in terms of not thinking through exactly what kind of resolution you want to pursue and not forming implementation plans.”
Koestner, continues, in an article titled Attaining Personal Goals: Self-Concordance Plus Implementation Intentions Equals Success, that there are three main reasons humans fail to successfully squash their bad habits and make the desired changes permanent.
Koestner classifies these dilemmas into three main categories: people making poorly structured goals and/or setting goals which conflict with one anothe r, failing to consciously realize why they are setting their goals and not doing it for themselves and caving into expectations, and lastly, failing to set up a plan which can lead towards making the changes they want, but instead jump right into it unprepared.
Koestner believes that goals can be attained by paying special attention to why goals are being set and the need for a plan of action before attempting to achieve the goal in order to take baby steps towards success.
Not brain science! Making it stick