Drink less, quit smoking, start to eat healthily, be nice to your relatives, exercise more, and give up your toxic relationships. These are just some of the common resolutions most of us make and subsequently break, year after year. Although estimates vary, scientific evidence suggests that new year’s resolutions are typically broken within the first few weeks, and less than 20% of people are able to maintain them for a couple of years, and with a few slips in between.
Psychologically, there is something quite interesting about our enthusiasm for starting the new year trying to be a better version of ourselves, only to give up and revert to our undesirable habits shortly thereafter, and recycle the same resolutions the following year.
One interpretation is that our resolutions simply reflect unrealistic hopes and wishful thinking or optimism delusion. Another is that we’re just not that serious about making changes, so we aren’t really willing to do what it takes to achieve them. This reminds me of the old joke about how many psychologists are needed to change one lightbulb: only one, so long as the lightbulb really wants to change.
Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that we can’t become a better version of ourselves. In fact, recent research suggests that even our deepest psychological traits change over time, especially with deliberate interventions. This doesn’t mean that our personality changes every year, or that we are able to shift from one end of a trait’s spectrum (e.g., emotional volatility) to its polar opposite (e.g., Zen-like cool-headedness). But with a lot of effort and perseverance, it is possible to flex quite a bit and sustain such changes over time. In fact, our personality is mostly the sum of our habits, and these habits did not appear one day out of the blue but are the product of our ongoing adaptations to different environments, which are largely selected based on our natural predispositions. For instance, if you are naturally curious you will seek challenging and novel environments to nurture your hungry mind, which in turn nurtures more curiosity.
Unsurprisingly, goals and resolutions are significantly easier to accomplish when they are congruent with our personality. For example, if your resolution is to be more sociable and spend more time with your friends, you are more likely to achieve this if you are a natural extrovert. And if your goal is to eat healthier or exercise more, being conscientious, to begin with, will help a lot.
This is one of the paradoxes of nudging technologies, such as health apps that monitor your sleeping, fitness, and drinking habits. They work best with those who need them the least and are less effective with those who really need them. You may have noticed, for instance, that the general profile of those who get hooked on these wellbeing apps is that they are quite obsessed about their wellbeing to begin with, which comes from their higher levels of drive, willpower, neuroticism, etc.
As a consequence, the biggest challenge is to learn how to go against your nature. That is, how to edit yourself in ways that are diametrically opposed to your natural inclinations. When your goal is not incremental progress, but to disrupt yourself altogether, then you truly have a big mountain to climb. To achieve this, you will surely need a great deal of motivation and a true desire to change rather than just an interest in having changed. The majority fail for this reason. The expected change signals what someone would have liked to have accomplished rather than what they are actually willing to fight for. Equally, the mainstream appeal of popular tips such as “play to your strengths” or “just be yourself” is quite self-evident. They are easy to follow and avoid the much more demanding challenge of taming our flaws.
So, if you are truly serious about change, and you are working on something meaningful, it’s likely hard and challenging in the first place. If you still haven’t broken your resolutions, well done, you are already part of a minority of high achievers. Keep going, and avoid getting complacent. And if you are part of the majority of people who already broke their resolutions, get up and keep fighting. Treat your slip as a small lapse, learn from it, and reset. The year has 365 days and there’s no point in throwing them all away just because a few didn’t quite work out.
If, on the other hand, it turns out that you didn’t really care that much about your resolution, then you have nothing to worry about, and there’s nothing wrong with being honest with yourself.