Every year, around this time of year, I find myself making the same resolutions—to workout every day and write fiction for three hours each morning. Inevitably, I don’t keep up and can't help feeling a little defeated having settled for some lesser version of what I'd hoped to achieve.
I'm not alone in this, of course. "Most people don’t know any more about changing their behavior than fixing their car," says John Norcross, psychologist and author of the book Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions. "They just get in there and hope it works."
About half the population makes resolutions each New Year, says Norcross and it's quite common for people to make the same resolution year after year, even when they've not followed through fully on that resolution the year before.
Psychologist Peter Herman has a term for this. He calls it "false hope syndrome," a fairly bleak term for an all-too-common phenomenon. "New Year’s resolvers typically report making the same pledge for five years or more before they manage a six-month success, and of those who fail this year, 60% will make the same resolution again next year," Herman writes in his research on the topic.
The false hope cycle goes like this: You set yourself a difficult or even impossible task and while you might make some progress toward it, you ultimately don't reach your goal. When the next year comes around, your memory of that initial progress motivates you to try once more, but chances are, you won't reach your goal yet again. "This cycle is liable to continue indefinitely," writes Herman. Before you know it, you're "riding the self-change merry- go-round" as Herman puts it.
This is not to rain on your resolution parade, because let's face it: the simple act of making resolution—telling yourself you're in control and going to improve in the coming year—feels really empowering. The problem, says Norcross is that many people don't take the necessary steps to adjust their expectations and plan what they will do to make those resolutions happen. "The people who simply devised a resolution and were motivated but didn’t devise a plan have a 4% chance," he says. "It's like manna falling from the sky."
Changing a few key factors in your approach this year will significantly shift your chances at actually following through on your goals.
Many people see the New Year as a chance to start fresh and finally be the person they've wanted to be. This is an empowering feeling, but it often shoves reason aside. The fact remains: change is incremental and takes time. "When it comes to resolutions and behavior change, people have some absurdly unrealistic ideas," says Norcross.
Take my goal to write and workout every single day. In the scheme of resolutions, these two seem fairly reasonable. I know plenty of people who do this. But if I take a step back, it quickly becomes clear to me that expecting myself to write and workout 365 days a year is a big ask considering where I'm at in my own daily routine. I've made these resolutions year after year and inevitably, after missing a day, then two, then three, I'm left feeling like I've failed to make it yet again.
Setting overly ambitious goals often has the result of making people feel dissatisfied with their incremental progress. If your goal is to run a marathon this year and you're working hard to simply make it to the three-mile mark, any progress you make can feel slight in contrast to the larger goal. "Creating too high of a goal leads to dissolution and doubt," says Norcross. "Break resolutions into far more manageable pieces." Set realistic, attainable goals and you'll feel more satisfied by your gradual progress.
If you ask the people around you for one piece of advice on how to maintain a resolution or behavior change, 70% of them would tell you what you need is willpower, says Norcross. Of course, it's part of the equation, but "anyone who relies exclusively on willpower will fail at twice the rate of someone else," he says. The reason? "After a while the positive thinking wears off and the motivation tears."
A behavior change requires rewiring to take place in your brain and that takes time. Usually we've been hanging onto a bad behavior because it comes with some benefits. "It's yummy, soothing, reinforcing, rewarding," says Norcross. "Every problem has a payoff."
Changes in behavior are made not by willpower, but by using concrete skills. Make a plan. Make sure your environment is conducive to reaching the goals you've set. That might mean adjusting your workspace or changing things in your home so that you reduce temptation and encourage the positive behaviors you're going after. Self-monitoring also increases the probably of success, says Norcross. Track your progress in a chart or notebook. Find actionable things to do that encourage behavior change. For example, if you want to be more fearless in your approach to work and life, that might mean scheduling activities that are unfamiliar and scary to you as a way to face fears head-on.
A common misconception about resolutions is that you've mastered the change if you've been at it for a few weeks. Behavioral research and brain research indicates it's going to take three months of doing a given behavior before it shifts from a temporary behavior to a habitual one. "The science is absolutely clear. You don’t have it at the end of January," says Norcross.
It's easier to maintain a change in behavior on your own at the very start of the year, but as time passes and your willpower wanes, the support of friends and family becomes critical in helping you stay on track. That might mean buddying up with someone you can workout with, reporting your progress toward a goal to a friend or simply sharing what your doing with others so that you don’t feel alone in your efforts.
Everyone slips up, including those people who achieve their New Year's resolutions. The difference between the people who make it and those who don't is simply their attitude toward the slip-ups. We tend to have an all-or-nothing mentality around resolutions that's simply not realistic.
Framing your goals in terms of both short- and long-term progress can be a helpful way to think more reasonably about slip-ups. If you have a goal you're trying to reach each month, a slip up here and there along the way won't carry the same kind of weight as long as you're able to meet your goal at the end of the month, suggests Herman.
Don't be so hard on yourself. "If you are learning to play the piano, you don’t give up because you miss a note," says Norcross. "It's not whether you slip, it's how you respond to the slip."