“This year I will lose those last 15 pounds!” “I promise to be a better spouse and parent!” “2020 is the year I am finally going to get organized!”
Are you someone who sets New Year’s resolutions? Researchers say at least 50 percent of those who set resolutions at the beginning of the year will fail before February is even over. Even more sobering, some research suggests that only 8 percent of people are still going strong with their resolutions by March. What is it that makes resolutions so hard to stick to? And what can we do to increase our chances for successfully reaching our goals and achieving self-improvement?
The answer lies in the roots of human behavior: understanding the real reason why people change. Real-life change happens when the pain of staying the same is worse than the pain of change. In a word: consequences. Painful, negative consequences push us toward change. Let’s look at this example: “If I don’t lose 50 pounds in the next two months, my doctor says I will have to start injecting myself daily with insulin and may lose my leg.” Dramatic, yes, but doesn’t that sound like a real reason to change? Another example, this from my work with people struggling with addiction: “If I get caught using drugs one more time, I will lose my children to the foster-care system forever.”
The problem for so many of us is that if we don’t lose weight, or become a better spouse or get organized, nothing happens. There is no negative consequence for failure, only staying the same (which usually feels quite comfortable!). One clever idea to help you stick to your goal involves the potential loss of something of value to you. If you have people close to you at work or in your family who also want to achieve a specific goal, you could participate in a money pool. If you achieve your goal by the year’s end, you get your money back. If you don’t, you lose your money to be split evenly between the group members. There is even a website (stickK.com) that will help you set your goal, hold some of your hard-earned bucks as ransom, and then give away your money to a friend, enemy, charity, or “anti-charity” (a charity whose mission you disagree with) if you miss the mark by your deadline in order to help you have something important at stake if you don’t reach your goal.
Another problem with humans and change is that we tend to shoot for too much change too quickly. (“I’m going to eat only healthy foods and get to the gym five times a week for no less than two hours per workout!”) The problem with those kinds of extreme goals is that we can fail too easily because the bar is set so high. With failure comes the feeling of defeat, which often leads to people giving up completely—sometimes even convincing themselves that the results of the change wouldn’t have been that great in the first place.
The answer to overly ambitious goal setting is to break down your end goal into smaller, more manageable pieces. If you want to become a healthier eater, perhaps resolve to eat a healthy breakfast every day until it becomes a lifestyle change. Then you can work on lunch and dinner. Or aim for two 20-minute workouts per week, and once that is a consistent part of your routine, add another day or lengthen your time at the gym. The idea that it takes 30 days to create a habit has recently been proven false; more recent research suggests it actually takes over 60 days. Remember what we learned from the tortoise: “Slow and steady wins the race!”
So, if you want to make a change this year, try these simple ideas. Recognizing (or creating) negative consequences for not achieving our goals, and breaking goals down into more achievable pieces might be just what we need to keep our resolutions all the way to December 31, 2020!
I’m ready to head to the gym! Who’s with me!?
Erin Wiley is a therapist and the owner of The Willow Center, Willow-Center.com, Erin-Wiley.com.