As a motivation scientist and health/self-care coach who has spent the past 23 years researching how to design sustainable health behavior change, I’ve always been fascinated by our cultural ritual to create resolutions for the New Year. Every year, filled with post-holiday enthusiasm, millions of people make the same hopeful, buoyant New Year’s Resolutions—only to watch them quickly deflate and fall flat, like cheap helium balloons. This is such a common occurrence that for many it’s a given that their resolutions will only last a short time, yet they make them over and over. Why does this happen?
1. People resolve to change their behavior inside a post-holiday bubble of overindulgence and wild hope for the future.
The holidays are starting earlier and earlier, and many people begin overindulging even before Thanksgiving. They feel gross, out of control, and ashamed, and in that extreme activated state they resolve to go on a strict diet and punishing exercise regimen—forgetting that their new behavior has to survive their real life. As everyday tasks and responsibilities demand time and effort, the resolution bubble bursts and the heat of urgency cools.
Tip: Plan for an achievable small change rather than a grandiose goal. Bigger is not better when it comes to Resolutions.
Tip: Think long-term. Real change needs to last a lifetime. So how do you start a change when forever is the new goal? (Take this quiz to assess how likely your 2017 New Year’s Resolutions are to stick.)
2. People do the same old thing without thinking critically about why those approaches and strategies didn’t work last time.
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It’s easy to fall back on previous behaviors, or depend on technology and gadgets and the-new-found-but-very-temporary motivation. And it’s equally easy for people to blame themselves for lack of willpower when their strategies don’t help their resolutions make it through January. Thinking critically beforehand about why past strategies, including products and services, failed can yield some powerful insights about what might work better this time around.
Tip: Add one change at a time. With limited cognitive resources and a lot on your plate, attempting to make multiple changes simultaneously, such as planning to exercise and drastically change your diet, sets most up to fail.
Tip: Don’t rely on a tech fix. Technology can track your activity, but the willingness do the activity is always self-generated.
3. People focus on losing (weight, flab) instead of gaining (well-being).