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The psychology behind New Year’s resolutions is faulty. Resolutions can’t lead to sustainable behavior change because they are not constructed in a way that harnesses motivation and turns it into action and change. We’re all bound to fail to lose that weight, get to inbox zero, exercise more, stop drinking so much and feel more gratitude. And because resolutions don’t work, they are inherently depressing.
Make New Year’s resolutions and you set yourself up to feel like a failure, a loser, a lazy person. And paradoxically, because you fail so quickly and thoroughly (have you ever resolved to lose weight and then pigged out five hours later at a New Year’s Day football watching party?) you easily give up trying to change.
New Year’s resolutions typically involve one of three wishes. The wish to stop avoiding something (getting rid of all the junk in your inbox). The wish to stop doing something that makes you feel good (eating, drinking, smoking). Or the wish to start doing something that doesn’t come naturally to you (journal, express gratitude, exercise).
Changing repetitive, familiar personal behaviors or adding new, unfamiliar ones are very, very difficult things to accomplish.
Why are New Year’s resolutions guaranteed to fail?
- Your behaviors are not just simple habits. They have deep roots and are embedded in intricate psychological, social and neurocircuitry systems. Your behavior is a complex product of your personality and temperament, your various emotional and physical needs (both in the past and in the moment), your learned experience and neurochemical feedback loops well beyond your awareness.
- Avoidance is an especially devious trickster. When you avoid something that makes you anxious or uncomfortable (e.g. that email inbox with 2,300 emails) you immediately are rewarded by a decrease in anxiety. If you face the thing that you’ve been avoiding, you immediately experience an increase in distress. In the long run, it’s quite the opposite. Persistent avoidance increases overall anxiety significantly. And facing things you’ve been avoiding eventually leads to a sustainable decrease in tension and anxiety. But to face the things you’ve been avoiding you have to tolerate a short-term increase in anxiety. That is hard to realize and to do.
- Giving up behaviors that make you feel better (eating, drinking, smoking) is difficult for obvious reasons. What are you going to give yourself when you feel bad if you can’t do what makes you feel better? How are you going to handle the overloaded feeling at the end of the day that makes you want to relax with a drink or the sense of deprivation that makes eating so satisfying? Additionally, any behavior that provides a reward leads to a compelling surge in the brain’s neurotransmitter dopamine, something we are wired to want to repeat.
- Taking on new behaviors that haven’t come naturally to you means you’re swimming upstream, against your own temperament, your body’s instincts and your unconscious emotional life.
The behaviors you resolve to change are difficult to change because they work for you, at least in the short run.
Do this instead: First review your accomplishments, then set goals
Why you should review and write down the past year’s accomplishments
You will be less anxious, more focused and more optimistic. It’s likely that you’ll be surprised at how much you’ve accomplished. Write a long list. Things you’ve learned, people you’ve met, projects you’ve completed. Be generous and inclusive. New experiences are accomplishments, so is surviving a failure or a loss.
Ambitious, career-minded people, especially those with an entrepreneurial bent, are always focused on the future. The next challenge, the next networking meeting, the next iteration of their business model, the next promotion, the next marketing effort. This upward, forward push is highly motivating. But it also deprives you of a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. You don’t feel filled up and you don’t feel good about yourself. Instead, there’s chronic anxiety, depletion and impatience.
Why goals work better than resolutions
In addition to being psychologically unrealistic, resolutions are too global and vague to be turned into motivated action. A resolution is something whose main function is to punish yourself. It’s essentially not doable.
If you’re a productivity advice junkie, you’ll see a version of this invaluable advice everywhere: set an achievable goal and then break down the tasks needed to get there into bits that you can actually complete in a finite amount of time.
“Start a blog” isn’t doable. “Write five blog posts a month” is also not doable. But tasks formulated this way are doable: “Write down three blog topics to write about this month” or “Schedule 45 minutes three days a week to work on blog posts.”
Try to formulate tasks so that it’s difficult to fail. If you get frozen, it’s possible to fail at “Write for 45 minutes.” It’s a lot harder to fail if you set yourself the task “Write, or at least sit in front of the computer trying to write, for 45 minutes.” If you don’t fail repeatedly, you won’t feel ashamed, demoralized or become avoidant.
I hope you take a few moments to enjoy the satisfaction of seeing what you’ve accomplished during the past year. Then make one resolution: to always stick to achievable goals and break them down into doable tasks.
January 1, 2019 at 05:51AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs