Lose weight, quit smoking, eat healthier, cut down on soda, work less or work more – we have all resolved to do something new or different in our transition from one calendar year to the next.
Often, we start strong and end up back where we started, with no real changes lasting the marathon of our lives.
Why is it we humans have such a hard time adhering to the changes we resolve to make with each new year?
That is a question that psychologists have ventured to answer through various studies, according to an article in Psychology Today.
In two different 2017 studies, “Immediate Rewards Predict Adherence to Long-Term Goals” published by Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and “Conscious-Nonconscious Processing Explains Why Some People Exercise but Most Don’t,” published by Seppo E. Iso-Ahola in the Journal of Nature and Science, researchers try to identify what causes people to either succeed or fail to adhere to their new year’s resolutions.
Woolley and Fishbach, of Cornell University and the University of Chicago respectively, suggest people often follow-through with resolutions they enjoy and not with resolutions that they feel they need to do.
Iso-Ahola found that people who think about having to make a change are less likely to make the change, but if the change can become an ingrained habit that one does regularly, then they are more likely to stick to the resolution.
“Just how much of this decision involves conscious wrestling with yourself over what you ought to do, as opposed to what you really want to do, will predict how likely you are to keep your . . . resolve,” writes Raj Persaud, M.D. and Peter Bruggen, M.D., in the article, “Psychology Explains New Year’s Resolutions, Hits and Misses.”
“Once you get going and start to establish a set of health routines, these then begin to operate below conscious awareness, so you don’t have to think too hard about them,” the doctors write.
According to Woolley and Fishbach, “55.2% of resolutions were health related (exercise: 31.3%, eat healthy: 10.4%, have healthier habits: 13.5%), 34.4% were work related (save: 20.8%, get out of debt: 12.5%, learn something: 0%, get organized: 1.0%), and 5.2% were social goals (spend time with family: 2.1%, help others: 0%, enjoy life: 3.1%).”
Health tends to be the number one resolution with most people, and gym memberships rise after the holiday season, with 12 percent of members joining in January and only an average of 8.4 percent joining in other months throughout the year according to the International Health, Racquet, and Sports Club.
Most of those January resolution members The Fitness Industry Association reports will quit attending the gym after 24 months, often throwing away six months of their membership money.
According to Iso-Ahola, if people engaged in regular exercise, did not smoke, ate a healthy diet, and used alcohol in moderation, they could live on average add seven years to their lives.
The formula for successful resolutions suggested in these studies requires one to incorporate resolutions that will allow for immediate gratification or short-term rewards, and that are incorporated in times of least self-resistance when the “law of least effort” overrides the desire to act on a resolution.
Exercise, according to Iso-Ahola, tends to fit in a person’s work schedule at the end of the day, when one may be tired. He or she has the freedom to do whatever he or she wants in that time outside of work, and may not want to “have to” exercise.
Thinking about the need to go exercise because it is the right thing to do for one’s health, and then feeling as if that exercise is eating into one’s free time, tends to create a barrier to one deciding to exercise.
Since it is easier to just watch TV or surf the Internet, a person may choose to practice the “law of least effort” allowing that resolution to exercise to dissipate.
Resolutions thought of as choices that one makes in his or her free time will not be fulfilled, but resolutions seen as necessities will become unconscious habits, argues Iso-Ahola.
If one resolves to exercise each morning before going to work, and views that task as important and necessary as taking a shower or going to work, then one’s approach to exercise changes from an act of choice to an act of need.
The benefits of an exercise resolution are exponential, but not always immediately obvious. Adding seven years to ones life is not an immediately obvious benefit, so while the thought is good, the reality is neither tangible nor predictable.
Other rewards are a little more obvious, but may not provide an immediate enough reward to motivate someone to stick to the new routine.
“For example, learning new motor skills as in taking up a new sport, actually increases brain gray matter. Physical activity boosts the size of hippocampus, the part of the brain devoted to memory, and thereby improves recollection function and may even delay or prevent dementia,” writes Persuad and Bruggen.
These benefits increase with sustained exercise, but may require more effort than a person is willing to expend, and may not provide the immediate reward that one would need to keep exercising.
This is where Woolley and Fishbach’s idea to engage in activities that will provide immediate rewards will help a person stick to the routine that he or she should think of as necessary as eating, sleeping and brushing one’s teeth.
Whatever your resolutions this year, if you are serious in your resolve, find ways to make the resolution both enjoyable and necessary in your regular routine if you want to ensure successful integration of these new beginnings into your life.
Then perhaps next year, you can resolve to do something completely new, and avoid rehashing old resolves.