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Science explains why productivity hacks and resolutions are practically destined to fail

Spoiler alert: Very few of them actually work. Here’s why.

Science explains why productivity hacks and resolutions are practically destined to fail
[Photo: M. Plt/Unsplash]

As we approach the new year, the inevitable flurry of self-management tips beckons. It’s a pity that they are so hard to implement, but this actually explains their proliferation. If there is so much demand for suggestions on how to fix one’s bad habits and replace them with brand-new, effective behaviors, it’s precisely because very few suggestions actually work.

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Consider that 80% of New Year’s resolutions are broken within two months–and these tend to concern habits or behaviors we are actually determined to change. So much so that they are often recycled year after year. Think, then, how much harder it is to find the will and persistence to change things just in order to please other people, like a boss, spouse, or client.

So, why are significant changes to our habits so hard to attain? Psychology provides some useful answers:

First, there is a big difference between wanting change and wanting to change. Even when people profess a clear desire to change, what that usually means is that they are interested in change as an outcome rather than change as a process. In other words, most people don’t really want to change, they want to have changed.

For instance, when someone says they want to lose weight, what they usually mean is that they want to have lost weight, without the dreadful stoic sacrifices that that would entail. Same for when someone says they would love to learn to speak Japanese or quit smoking.

Another way to look at this is that we probably don’t care as much about changing as we say, or we would not be put off by the prospect of doing what we need to do to achieve that change. This may sound defeating but it’s a more honest depiction of our motivation than we have when we pretend to want something we don’t really want. Acknowledging this fact would minimize guilt while refocusing our energies on the things we actually value more than the triggers of change: e.g., free time, sleeping, pleasure, eating, and smoking.

Second, our personality constrains our ability to change, setting the limits to our likelihood of replacing old habits with new ones. As large-scale scientific studies have shown, our predispositions don’t change much. This is why we are rarely surprised when we meet people we have not seen in 10 or 20 years, like at high school reunions. Their physical appearance may have changed–sometimes dramatically–but their attitudes, style, and values tend to remain pretty fixed.

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This is not to say that people can’t change, but they either become exaggerated versions of their earlier selves, or follow a common maturity curve that makes them less open to new experiences, more conservative, and more conscientious (think: becoming more boring versions of ourselves).

For all the hype about grit and growth mindset as catalysts of change, there is little scientific evidence to show that we can actually boost people’s grit or growth mindset beyond their personal default level. Rather, these qualities behave much like other personality traits, so they are found in different degrees in different people. Paradoxically, a growth mindset is more fixed than dynamic.

Last, but not least, we all strive to make our environments as predictable and unthreatening as possible. The mere thought of change is threatening and frightening, which is why we gravitate toward the familiar and are generally happier with the devil we know. This may sound counterintuitive in an age that glorifies disruptive rule breakers with no tolerance for boredom and routine, but it is still the reality for most people. And that’s okay. Life is complex enough to abandon the possibility of controlling and managing some of its elements, and the more predictable most things are, the more freedom we have to pursue innovation and change in others.

However, there is also a cost to this. We become increasingly programmed to behave in more similar ways, and our growing ability to adapt to environments decreases our ability (and willingness) to change. The psychological term for this is niche-picking, and it speaks to a reciprocal relationship between our habits and the challenges and problems that benefit from them.

Sociable people will seek social situations where their ability to interact with others is a natural adaptation. These situations will in turn reward and enhance their sociability. This creates a snowball effect that makes it less and less appealing (and adaptive) for them to spend time on their own. By the same token, people who are naturally more introverted will tend to avoid situations of rich social interaction, preferring instead to spend time on their own (reading, thinking, watching movies). This, in turn, will enhance their ability to adapt to solitary environments while reducing their ability to interact with strangers. Because these mechanisms are in place from a very early age, the longer we wait to try to break these cycles, the harder it is to break them.

Changing and becoming a better version of ourselves is possible. But that change is going to be hardest when we are not truly committed and when it involves going against our nature. A hack that promises to help us can’t when it depends on us having to unlearn our deep-rooted patterns of adapting. That’s why playing to our strengths is much easier, to the point of not requiring much effort at all. It’s a bit like being asked to start next year by being ourselves.

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