Joanna Schroeder examines evidence that New Year’s resolutions are doomed to fail—and ponders how to succeed at making meaningful change.
January 1st is just a day.
New Year’s Day has power because we ascribe symbolic value to it, but the first day of the year is no different than the fourth day of the year. People will be born, people will die, someone will get dumped, and you will probably have to do the dishes.
But it matters to us because we want to believe in a clean start. For those of us who’s 2012 sucked, the idea that January 1st might wash at least a bit of that suckiness away is comforting.
And then there are the resolutions. A Newsweek article from last week says that quitting smoking and losing weight rank at the top of people’s lists of resolutions year-to-year, and certainly this year will be no exception. But more of us fail than succeed at our New Year’s Resolutions, further proof that the date is pretty irrelevant when it comes to making meaningful change.
The same Newsweek article, titled Oliver Burkeman on Failed New Year’s Resolutions, explains a somewhat revolutionary truth: that willpower—the skill you’ll most need in order to make meaningful change—is a depletable resource. Committing to cutting out all junk food and to start running (if you aren’t already practiced at these skills) might just be too much change at once. Add in twice-weekly yoga and you may be pushing yourself toward failure.
[I]t makes intuitive sense to imagine that radical, across-the-board changes would be the most effective ones, because each change would support the others. Develop the habit of going daily to the gym, for instance, and you’d assume you’d naturally also become the kind of health-minded person who avoids junk food. But a large (albeit contested) body of evidence suggests that willpower is a unitary and depletable resource: the more of it you use making one change, the less you’ll have left over to make others. The discipline you exert on building the exercise habit, initially at least, leaves you more susceptible to burgers rather than less.
Yes, it’s contested, but I bet most of us can relate to the idea that willpower isn’t infinitely available. Eating well and exercising certainly go hand-in-hand, but to make meaningful change, you may be more successful in the long-term if you choose just one a time. Maybe start walking 30 minutes a day, but don’t ditch your ice cream just yet. That’s what filmmaker Michael Moore did 8 months ago (read the compelling story on his Facebook page), and it seems pretty reasonable. Once the walk becomes a second-nature pleasure that requires very little willpower, that’s when you cut back on some of the foods you know are compromising your health.
I’ve spent the last year committed to living my life differently. One year ago I was pretty miserable, and two years ago I was a disaster (despite how I may have looked on the outside). In the last year, I’ve rebuilt my career and recommitted to making my marriage solid and rewarding. I also made a deeply conscious effort to end my disordered eating and completely jacked-up body image issues. I did it all of this by being very strict with myself, by making painful sacrifices, going to therapy consistently, relying upon the healthy relationships in my life for support, and writing all the time—both for work and for my personal growth.
It wasn’t sexy. And none of these things were New Year’s resolutions. They were challenges that came up along the way that I had to address. And I failed a lot—am still failing sometimes—but I just keep trying to do better over and over again. I didn’t have affirmations that got me through, aside from “feed what you want to see grow”, which is my general life motto. There was no guru, just had myself and my support network, and I didn’t read a book that changed my outlook.
The same Newsweek article explains why most self-help books simply do not work:
[T]he doctrine of positive thinking that underpins modern self-help rests on circular logic: when a given technique fails, the implication goes, it’s because you weren’t thinking positively enough—and so you need positive thinking even more. In reality, psychological research increasingly suggests that repeating “affirmations” makes people with low self-esteem feel worse; that visualizing your ambitions can make you less motivated to achieve them; that goal setting can backfire; and that emotions can’t be controlled through sheer force of will. But the temptation to just try even harder can be hard to resist. “The key to success,” argues the best-selling motivational writer Brian Tracy, “is to focus our conscious mind on things we desire, not things we fear.”
I think it’s helpful to focus upon the things that you want, rather than what you don’t want. But visualization doesn’t do a whole lot after you’ve laid out how you’re going to work toward your goal. Picturing my novel being published (okay, even just finished) can be intimidating, and is actually pretty useless if I don’t have a solid, executable plan in place to do so. Instead, it’s probably more helpful to set aside a time each day to sit down and work on the dang book—even if it’s just one word.
We all know the truth somewhere deep inside us: Success comes from slow and consistent progress, asking for help from the people who care about us (and health professionals—mental or otherwise), and continuing to commit to our goals throughout the year despite missteps and failures. June 14th will be a great day to get back to walking 30 minutes a day, in case you fail at that resolution in early May. February 1st is a great day to quit smoking, just in case January 1st doesn’t work out.
This year, I only have one resolution: After a year of being hard on myself, I’m going to focus on self-care. I am going to integrate more walking, yoga and time with friends into every week.
Let’s take it slow, folks. Let’s ask for help, and keep our goals simple and attainable. And toss those self-help books that just don’t seem to work.
For more from Oliver Burkeman about New Year’s Resolutions and the Self-Help industry, visit Newsweek.com.
Lead Photo – AP