According to a survey conducted by YouGov, 63% of people decided to start a new life in 2015. Losing weight, going in for sports, eating healthy food – these were the most common New Year’s resolutions. Another 12% wanted to finally achieve the perfect balance between work and personal life. How many of them were actually able to fulfill their promises is unknown. But if we rely on previous experience, we all can become panic-stricken.
The survey showed that 32% of the respondents ceased to perform their own New Year’s resolutions by the end of January. And only 10% could boast sticking to the given oath inviolably.
What distinguishes this winning majority from the failed minority? Perhaps the thing is their willpower? Can we really use the achievements of psychology to help ourselves realize our New Year’s resolutions?
New Year’s resolutions
The tradition of New Year’s resolutions has a long history. The Babylonians returned their borrowed items and tried to pay off their debts before the New Year. The Romans made a vow to God Janus. As we see, the potential for the failure of these vows has been accumulating over the centuries.
Benjamin Gardner, an expert in behavior changes from King’s College London, said that the main cause of violating New Year’s resolutions had always been their unrealistic nature.
For example, if you are not involved in any sports exercises, and then you give an oath on the New Year’s Eve that you would go to a gym five times a week for an hour and a half, it is highly probable that you are not even going to try.
Another reason is that people are often not willing to change. Psychologists have recently suggested that people need an opportunity, an ability and motivation to begin to change themselves. People often fail to fulfill New Year’s resolutions for very reasonable reasons. For example, due to lack of motivation.
How to choose a reasonable New Year’s resolution
Ask yourself what you would like to change in yourself first of all, provided that there is no pressure and the opinions of others are not taken into consideration? This is important because the research shows that you will be able to change your own behavior when you are motivated by internal rather than external forces.
This confirms an interesting experiment. In 1996, 128 people suffering from obesity participated in a program of weight loss. Those who wanted to change their weight for health reasons attended the classes regularly, lost a large amount of kilograms and were able to keep the result. But those who took part in the program according to their friends’ or relatives’ advice lost the motivation very quickly.
Okay, now you think of your New Year’s resolutions with the right motivation.
Are you able to realize your New Year’s vow?
Many people find willpower to be a trait of character. So you’re either born with it or you do not know what willpower is. But recent psychological studies suggest that it is not so simple.
Roy Baumeister, a professor of the University of Florida, says that willpower is like a muscle, it can develop or reduce; if you exercise, it becomes stronger.
The study, which was conducted by Baumeister, has become a classic example. The scientist divided the volunteers into two groups. The members of the first group were asked to eat a portion of chocolate cookies. The second group members had to refrain from eating sweets and were given a plate of radishes instead. After that, the participants of the study had to solve complex problems in geometry. Those who had eaten the cookies needed more time to find the answer than those who had eaten the radishes. Apparently, willpower is a resource that we can either preserve or spend.
Subsequent tests also showed that the people found it much more difficult to control themselves if they had previously taken some difficult decisions or if they had low blood sugar.
Roy Baumeister often reflects on political scandals and thinks of the politicians who happened to be drug addicts or had prostitutes. He never justifies them, but he assumes that making decisions during the whole day slowly consumes and destroys their willpower, so in the end these people suddenly find themselves in a compromising situation.
Nevertheless, the professor points out that simpler solutions suck out our willpower equally perceptibly. For example, resisting the desire to eat a little more of that wonderful chocolate cake. Or taking a shower when you want to sit under a warm blanket without having to go anywhere. All this drains our will power.
If your New Year’s resolutions are more like a long list, you will likely fail. It is worth spending your willpower on one thing. Start with the easiest promise and then go to difficult and complicated issues.
Baumeister argues that willpower will grow in proportion as you start fulfilling your plans. Many studies have shown that when volunteers are given small and regular self-monitoring tasks, their willpower increases in a matter of two weeks.
John Tierney, Baumeister’s colleague and the author of works on willpower training, advises to adopt a few rules that will help improve the capacity for self-control:
- Make a list of goals. Select one of them. Accomplish this task first and only then move to the rest of your New Year’s resolutions.
- Formulate the promise very clearly and simply. Then you will be able to estimate how close you are to victory. If you want more exercise, you can promise to go to a gym at least three times a week.
- Find someone who will help monitor progress. Ask a friend to monitor your progress and punish you severely for the failure to comply with the promises. For example, if you miss a session in a gym, you will have to pay 10 dollars. Or donate this sum to the wackiest invention on Kickstarter – it will be even more effective.
Okay, now you know how to control willpower.
Is having nothing but willpower enough?
Even if you are a very strong-willed person, there may be other obstacles on your way.
Peter Gollwitzer, professor of psychology at New York University, says that having a goal and willpower are not enough to achieve the desired result. For example, if you want to train yourself to buy a coffee on your way to work, you are likely to succeed. But as soon as you face a more difficult task, you may fail.
According to the scientist, you should clearly understand the goals and the way to achieve them. You have to imagine when, where and how you will carry out your plans.
You need to think about the possible problems or obstacles and the means of solving them.
For example, in 2016 you want to write a novel. You need to think about how to carry out this New Year’s resolution. For example, you might decide to write a few pages each time your spouse goes to work or to a gym. But it is also necessary to think in advance what to do if at this very moment your friend calls and invites you to go for a walk or to have lunch together. Peter Gollwitzer calls this “if – then” planning: if X happens, then Y will follow.
People who use this type of planning are two to three times more likely to reach their goals. This applies to all spheres of life, from losing weight to the desire to travel more.
One of the reasons why this scheme of planning is so effective is that it saves mental and physical energy. Once you have decided what you will do in the first, second and third cases, you switch to the autopilot mode and develop a habit.
Of course, habits are often the reason why people generally make New Year’s resolutions. Habits allow us to do some things without thinking; these are cases of adaptive response. But bad habits are a real problem as they are difficult to get rid of: they are separate from motivation. For example, the promise to eat healthy foods that is repeated so often.
Can I change my habits?
Habits are formed by repeating the same behavior in response to the same stimulus.
To create a new habit, you need about 66 days.
Certain forms of behavior are easier to transform into a habit than others. For example, it is much easier to train yourself to drink a glass of water after breakfast than to do 50 sit-ups a day. This means that you should try and choose a small change in behavior, train yourself to practice it and then move on towards a more general goal.
In order to overcome a bad habit, you need to get rid of the temptation. Then you will not have to use willpower not to go back to the wrong behavior.
For example, Molly Crockett of Oxford says that the most advantageous strategy is a game where you see everything in advance. If you foresee all possible temptations in advance and remove them from your life, the reasons to break the promise will not be numerous.
Studies show that when you have to calculate the action in advance, your brain activates the area, which is responsible for self-control. It works even better than willpower. According to Molly Crockett, if you’re trying to lose weight, it is better to completely abandon the purchase of harmful fatty foods. It is much easier than sitting, looking at the high-calorie food and hoping that you will be able to resist the temptation.
When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, you should remember that it is better to find a clear and simple framework of behavior for the task set. Cultivate it in turn forming good habits, and then you will reach the goal.
Of course, keep it in mind that you should not necessarily wait for the next New Year to begin to live a new life or acquire new healthy habits.