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Why Are Resolutions So Hard To Follow?

Willpower isn’t the only determinant of resolution success.

Why Are Resolutions So Hard To Follow?
[Photo: Flickr user Ken Hawkins]

While setting New Year’s resolutions is routine for many of us, research from the University of Scranton shows while 45% of Americans usually make New Year’s resolutions, only 8% actually stick to them. So, why are resolutions so quickly discarded? The easy answer is because most resolutions require a change in habit.

Starting a new habit is hard, and breaking a bad habit is even harder. While many of us assume that the key to changing our habits is having enough willpower, social scientist Joseph Grenny, co-author of Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success, says our will to change is only a small factor that contributes to our ability to follow through with habit-changing resolutions. He argues the key to sustainable habit change is to examine all of the external factors that control our behavior. "We have far less control over our own behavior than we like to think," says Grenny, who identifies six sources of influence that can get in the way of our resolution success.

Increase your resolution success by gaining control over the things that control you and follow these six key steps:

1. Disarm Your Impulses

We all have impulses that make some behaviors feel pleasurable while others feel downright miserable. Case in point: Last spring, I registered for a charity bike ride—cycling 200km over two days. The ride was in June, meaning I had to get outdoors and start training in March—not a very warm time of the year in Toronto. Some mornings, I awoke to find frost on the windows. Waking up early on a freezing Sunday morning to ride my bike went against all of my impulses, which were telling me to pull the covers over my head and stay in my warm bed.

If I’d followed my impulses, I would never achieve my goal of cycling 200km. So, I invited a group of friends. Meeting with my peers on an early Sunday morning became the most pleasurable part of my day and what I looked forward to most on the weekend. Changing my habit of sleeping in on Sunday morning started with disarming my impulse to hide under the covers; making the brisk morning bike ride feel more pleasurable than staying in bed.

2. Acquire The Necessary Skills

Does your new behavior require the acquisition of a new skill set? If your resolution is to lose weight, perhaps you need to hire a personal trainer to show you the exercises that can most effectively help you attain that goal. If your goal is to become a better leader, perhaps you need to take some leadership training courses, or buy a book to provide you with the knowledge and ability you require in order to succeed.

3. Choose Your Friends Wisely

The people you surround yourself with on a daily basis have a great deal of influence on your choices and can interfere with you achieving your goals. If your goal is to save money, but the people you hang out with talk about nothing other than the cool new tech items they recently purchased and the vacations they’re going on, those conversations are likely to normalize those spending and consumption habits and influence your financial choices, making it more difficult for you to stick with your savings goal. "We change our morals, actions, and behaviors because of the actions of those around us," says Grenny. Get peer pressure to work for you, rather than against you, by surrounding yourself with individuals who are exhibiting the behaviors you want to implement in your life.

4. Find A Support System

Oftentimes, achieving our goals requires external help, information, or resources. Surrounding yourself with individuals who have the knowledge or resources you require to attain your goals can place you on the path to success.

5. Reward Yourself For Small Goals

Use rewards to manipulate yourself into keeping good habits. Only allowing yourself to have that delicious peanut butter smoothie you love after completing your workout, for example, is a great way to promote habit change. "Our brains are wired to react to those sorts of connections (working out = delicious smoothie) and if you intentionally create them by setting small goals and attaching a modest reward that’s consistent with your long-term objectives, you can change your level of motivation to keep your commitments," says Grenny.

6. Get Control Of Your Environment

Our physical surroundings influence how we think, feel, and act. If you’re trying to avoid being distracted by email but you have your email alerts on all day long, your environment will be hindering your ability to meet your goal. "It’s like trying to keep a diet and exercise goal but you have a candy bowl sitting on your counter," says Grenny. Survey your physical environment and ask what in your environment enables you and how you can change your environment to encourage the positive habit change you want to adopt.

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