You Are Going To Make It This Year!
Each New Year has something magical about it. At the first of January a brand new year lies ahead of us, it is always a bit like “starting all over”. Almost everybody has made their New Year resolutions, planning to do everything this new year better than in the previous years. This time, we promised ourselves to quit smoking or nail biting, to lose weight, to finally start the renovation of our bathroom, to visit our family more often, etc. Funny enough, the plans we make are quite similar to the plans we made the years before. This is because at New Year’s Eve we realize that we did not manage to reach all the goals we set for ourselves at the beginning of the year.
Although we often are quite sincere in setting up these plans for ourselves on New Years Day, we fail to execute them successfully throughout the following year. After a couple of months into the year, it is now time to show what exactly goes wrong most of the times. First a couple of problems will be defined. Next, solutions and tips will be provided to help you succeed and to realize those New Year’s resolutions.
Five reasons why we do not stick to our plans
A first problem related to New Year’s resolutions is that there are so many of them. Your friends will probably not take you seriously if you come up with only one resolution, for example, to stop spending money on ridiculously expensive shoes. People usually do not come up with only one resolution; they come up with a list. A long list of resolutions can be confusing. Some of your plans may be related to each other and may hinder each others’ execution mutually (Baumeister & Heatherton, 1996). For example, it will be quite hard to stop smoking and lose weight at the same time. When one stops smoking usually candies are used to distract oneself of the craving for a cigarette. If you simultaneously refrain yourself from eating candy, you place yourself in position that is twice as challenging.
A second problem is that your goal has to be self-concordant. You have to strive for the goal for reasons that are internal to yourself, and not for reasons that are put upon you by others (Sheldon & Kasser, 1998). If your partner wants you to quit smoking, this will be harder to execute if you do not actually want it yourself. People often do not realize that they strive for goals that are put upon them by others.
A third problem is underestimating or simply overlooking of the challenge. We often do not realize how much effort it is going to take to reach our goals. Getting out of a bad habit is quite takes considerable effort, because we are so used to performing the behavior. In the case of a bad habit, you are probably aware of the fact that you should not do it. The fact that we perform the behavior almost automatically reduces our awareness of its occurrence. We only find out how often we perform a certain behavior when we try to stop it.
A fourth problem with New Year’s resolutions is that we usually formulate them very abstractly. If our New Year’s resolution is for example to lose weight, we usually do not specify when or how we are going to do it (Gollwitzer, 1999). The abstractness of our plans makes it harder to execute it and also makes it easier to cheat. If we do not specify that we are going start losing weight today, there is no reason to stop ourselves from eating that extra cookie. When we formulate abstract plans, we end up planning all the effortful things for “tomorrow”.
A final problem with the execution of plans is that we punish ourselves too hard if we fail. A well known reaction to failure to execute a detail in your plan is thinking you can’t do it at all. This does not help you to reach your goal however. If you spoil your diet by eating one cookie, it will probably not damage you to much if you stick to the diet during the rest of the week. In all likelihood, things will go wrong if you eat a cookie and tell yourself that you’re an absolute sucker and you will never manage to lose weight in your life. This will probably make you feel so bad that you won’t continue the diet at all and as a reaction you will probably eat the entire pack of cookies. That will spoil your diet!
So, how can we solve these problems and make ourselves able to actually reach the goals we set to ourselves at New Year’s Eve? First, try to reach one goal at a time. Pick one plan out of your list of New Year’s resolutions and start working to implement it. Your goal should be clear and unambiguous, so it can not be “I want to exercise sometimes”. Also, your goal should have the right level of difficulty. It should take effort to reach it, but not be unattainable.