Forget New Year’s Resolutions. Make Little Changes Instead.

New Years Resolutions

The Truth About New Year’s Resolutions

Hopefully this is enough to persuade you to NOT make a New Year’s Resolution for 2019. If you still need convincing, let’s take a look at what the people who failed had in common.

They used January 1st as their starting date.

January 1st is as arbitrary as any other date, but the idea feeds off our collective assumption that there’s something magical about starting with a “blank slate” for the new year. Outside of wall calendars and tax returns, there is nothing more “fresh” about the first day of a new year than there is at the beginning of any other day.

Indulgence in any behavior up to the day of cessation makes it even more difficult to stop. Does it make sense to reinforce a behavior as much as possible and then attempt to quit it cold turkey?

Their goals weren’t specific enough.

The #1 New Year’s Resolution for 2018 was to become a better person. Have you noticed whether or not people seem a little better this year? How would you begin to assess your own improvement had this been your goal?

Their goals were too big.

Some attempt to completely reinvent themselves overnight, without making any shifts to the way they do things all the way up to New Year’s Eve. This strategy is likely to fail.

Small, meaningful, attainable goals are common among those who keep their resolutions.

They were serial resoluters.

Setting resolutions and not following through with them became habit.

The more someone sets a goal and fails, the less likely they are to succeed with future attempts. This is because the experience of failure reinforces a popular cultural belief that trying is futile, and this becomes their experience.

Of course, they didn’t really try in the true sense of the word. They merely proclaimed a New Year’s Resolution, did some half-assed planning and equated it with trying. Every time they “tried” they “failed” and now their brains operate as if trying and failing are synonymous.

If the brain perceives trying and failing as the same, is it any mystery why there’s no motivation to get started again on New Year’s Day?

They expected to feel motivated.

Commitment to goals involves following through with things even when one feels zero motivation to do it. It sucks, but it may take a few successes to get those feelings of motivation to return.

They were all or nothing.

For many good (and bad) reasons most people won’t stick to their goals 100% of the time.

A good backup strategy involves acknowledging the transgression, and continuing to move forwarded on the intended path. For example, if you were pressed for time and ended up eating some calorie-dense fast food for lunch, the most effective thing to do would be to continue eating healthful foods for the remainder of the day.

Should you choose to stray from your diet for the remainder of the day, this may cause the “what the hell” effect which will take you off course from your goal. You will be less likely to resume your diet the next day, and for the rest of the year.

Little Change IconMake this Little Change

Pick one of your New Year’s Resolutions and start practicing it right now.

How to Make Your Resolution Stick

Since you decided not to wait until January 1 the odds of following through with it are already in your favor. Here are some ideas that will help you increase your chances of success even more:

Make a small, reasonable, specific change.

If your original New Year’s Resolution was to “lose weight,” consider the specific amount of weight you want to lose and then start today by cutting out desserts. You can commit to refraining from desserts until you lose at least 10 pounds, or whatever amount you decide.

From the American Psychological Association regarding resolutions:

Setting small, attainable goals throughout the year, instead of a singular, overwhelming goal on January 1 can help you reach whatever it is you strive for.

Prepare for success.

Make sure the structures in your life are ready for the newer version of yourself.

For example, if you plan to lose weight, you will need different clothes than the ones you’re wearing now. This doesn’t mean you should go out and buy them today, but consider scheduling a shopping day a month or two in advance so that you will be prepared to have clothes ready for your new size.

Prepare for failure.

Decide in advance that you will not allow an accidental (or intentional) slip up prevent you from keeping this resolution. Whatever strategy you put in place, be sure it involves quickly acknowledging the transgression and moving on toward the intended goal.

Prepare for extinction burst.

Extinction burst is the term for your brain’s final attempt at getting what it’s used to having after you’ve already changed a habit. The intensity of the craving catches many people off guard as it often happens after a period of success.

For example, you may go several days without smoking, have the worst of it behind you, and then get an intense craving for a cigarette, seemingly out of nowhere. This is extinction burst. Now that you know what it is, you can expect it and safely ignore it.

Here’s a more colorful description of extinction burst from the You Are Not So Smart podcast:

When you are under the spell of operant conditioning and expect to receive a reward or a punishment after a certain behavior but nothing happens, your conditioned response starts to fade away. If you stop letting your cat in the bedroom after he meows and scratches at the door, he will eventually stop begging to be let in. His behavior will go extinct.

Right as the behavior is breathing its final breath, that’s when you can expect an extinction burst. Your cat will begin meowing like crazy, pawing at the door for what seems like hours.

If you insist on making a New Year’s Resolution anyway, here are some ideas for resolutions you can keep.

The New Year’s Resolution Fallacy Continues…

How can a concept that is obviously ineffective remain so popular? This is because tradition often triumphs over efficacy, and simplicity often triumphs over substance. But these are the subjects of a future article. Next Year.

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