New Year’s resolutions: we make them, we break them, but why?

6781d350-8f73-11e4-91a2-5b7cf9539efa_New-Years-ResolutionsIt only takes one flip through the weekly shopping flyers and you’ll find that most department stores have already jumped to a new bandwagon that they can exploit: helping you achieve your New Year’s resolutions. Whether that means selling books with titles like “Ways to Help You Get Organized”, fitness gadgets that track your activity, exercise, food intake, weight and sleep, or perhaps an e-cigarette that helps you kick that smoking habit to the curb, the retailers are ready, but are you?

Not surprisingly, getting rid of bad habits, losing weight and quitting smoking are among the top ten New Year’s resolutions for 2015, which also include:

  • Spend less, save more
  • Enjoy life to the fullest
  • Staying fit and healthy
  • Learn something new and exciting
  • Help others in achieving their dreams
  • Fall in love
  • Spend more time with family

While the New Year literally means a new calendar year, this doesn’t necessar ily translate into a ‘new you’ or a new lifestyle, as many may hope and though there are many innovative products out there designed to keep you on track, several questions remain.

Firstly, why has our society become so engrossed in this ‘New Year’s’ mentality that we need the new year to come around for us to be able to work towards self-improvement? How did we come to think we can change our habits solely based around an impending holiday?

We’ve become accustomed to saying things such as “I’ll start eating healthy tomorrow”, “I’ll go to the gym tomorrow”, “I’ll stop procrastinating next month”, and this perhaps rings true for most students, “I’ll work harder next semester”. I’ve heard it all before, and I’m also guilty of it.

One of the promises that tomorrow, next month, next semester and the future brings is hope. Hope that in 24 hours we would have become a person who suddenly has the motivation and the drive that we didn’t have the day before. Hope that we can get all of our bad studying habits out of the way and learn from them during the fall semester just in time for the winter semester to roll around. Even more so, hope that with the New Year, comes a new you.

However, the cycle continues and when tomorrow eventually comes, we fall into the habit of pushing back our goals another day, another week or another year. We’ve conjured up this idea that in order to have a fresh start, we need a clean slate, and this clean slate somehow can only be brought by a new day or a new year.

One of the problems that I’ve found with my own resolutions is that when tomorrow arrives, my routine never changes, thus, my mindset remains stagnant. It wasn’t that I needed to experience a fresh start and have a clean slate to start working towards success. In reality, I needed to realize there is more to achieving resolutions than pure intention because unfortunately, as we are creatures of habit, nothing about our routine changes unless we plan accordingly and take action.

We have to understand that there is a difference between intention and planning when it comes to resolutions. I can easily say day-in and day-out that I intend to start or stop doing something tomorrow, but without any concrete plans, I will continue the same habits as the day before. It’s important to conjure up ideas and ways that are going to practically help me achieve my resolution, such as “when do I want to achieve this by” or “what habits do I have to change in order to get where I want to be”.

According to Time Magazine, one of the major pitfalls of people trying to keep their New Year’s resolutions is a lack of planning, and with fewer than 10 per cent of resolutions being kept throughout the year, there is a disconnect somewhere between intention and planning. Time suggests that it is a combination of setting unrealistic goals, pledging to change in a vague way, not tracking your progress, focusing on the negative and exposing yourself to temptation, leading us to break our resolutions early in the year.

In fact, in 2013, Forbes reported that 75 per cent of people kept their New Year’s resolutions for one week, 71 per cent for two weeks, 64 per cent for one month, 46 per cent for six months and less than 10 per cent for the entire year. With a significant decrease between one to six months, the disconnect is clearly prevalent.

Furthermore, Amy Dalton and Stephen Spiller did a study in 2012 explaining that the disconnect lies in making too many intentions or resolutions with little planning. Instead, they present implementation intention as one of the key ways to achieving your goal. Implementation intentions “are specific plans regarding how, when, and where to pursue a goal”, however, “implemental planning for multiple goals undermines commitment to those goals relative to other desirable activities and thereby undermines goal success.”

In other words, the more resolutions you set for yourself, the more likely you are to fail. Remember the list of top ten New Year’s resolutions of 2015 from earlier? According to Dalton and Spiller’s study, it is more effective and efficient for us to focus on one of these goals rather than trying to incorporate all of them into our lives. The more intention, time and planning that is dedicated to one goal instead of a few, greatly increases our chances of keeping our resolution for 365 days, or beyond.

One of the ways that we can combat our old habits is by going back to the basics. As mentioned above, we are creatures of habit and just as our old, bad habits started from somewhere, new and healthy ones can be formed in a similar fashion.

Wendy Wood, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California reported to CTV News that creating new habits requires “recognizing the usual cues that trigger the habits, finding a way to disrupt those usual reactions and choosing a new habit and repeating the same action in the same situation to ingrain the new habit.”

For example, if you find that you tend to sit back and watch television for hours on end following dinner, kick-start a better habit by going for a walk instead. After a while, this after dinner walk becomes part of your routine, just as the habit of laziness had in the beginning. However, it’s not going to take 21 days to make it a normal part of your day, as the long-standing myth suggests. CTV News reported that a study in 2009 published in the European Journal of Social Psychology “found that ingraining new habits often takes much longer – anywhere from 18 to 254 days.”

Similarly, Forbes suggests that identifying your readiness to change and building mental strength is one of the ways in which you can reinvent your current behaviour. Just like those clichés such as ‘mind over matter’, ‘can-do attitude’, ‘whether you think you can or you think you can’t – you’re right’, or even the beloved children’s story “The Little Engine That Could”, your perspective, commitment and attitude towards your goal are the beginnings of your success.

Learning to properly set a goal is also part of the basics, and has been a fundamental skill that has been taught to us since elementary school. Yet, when it comes to applying this skill in real life, we seem to forget what it takes to make a personal plan and see it through. Based on the articles from Time, Forbes, and Dalton and Spiller’s study, I found that their solutions on how to set goals were similar, following the simple S.M.A.R.T system.

S.M.A.R.T stands for and asks the following questions: 

S – Specific

  • Who is involved? What do I want to accomplish? Are there any requirements or constraints? Why do I want to accomplish this goal? Are there any other resources or friends that I can benefit from consulting?

M – Measurable

  • Is this goal measurable? Ask yourself: How much? How many? How are you going to measure your progress? How will I know when I have accomplished my goal?

A – Attainable

  • What are the steps that I am going to have to take in order to move closer to achieving my goal? What skills do I presently have that will help me succeed?

R – Realistic

  • Is this goal realistic? Am I taking on too much or too little? Am I willing to form new habits and sacrifice others to get where I want to be?

T – Timely

  • Ask yourself: Specific dates? Numbers? When do I want to achieve this by? Is this a realistic time frame?

Though others may choose to visualize their goal in other ways, such as implantation intentions, motivational boards, mobile tracker apps on their smartphone, or posting their resolutions on social media in order to be held accountable for their progress, the central idea that we need to keep in mind is reminding ourselves of our commitment to self-improvement, as well as the importance of time.

This leads us to a final question when it comes to our New Year’s resolutions: why do we break them?

Aside from the lack of planning, Justin Parro, coordinator for the Brock-Niagara Centre for Health and Well-Being said in an interview with the St. Catharines Standard, “oftentimes failure comes down to wanting to find a ‘quick fix,’ as opposed to developing a long-term regimented plan.”

With weight loss being one of the top resolutions in recent years, Parro mentioned “people who sign up for a short stint at the gym or go on crash diets to reach their weight loss goal in one to three months will usually go back to where they started quickly. Success lies in being able to do it in the long term.”

The truth of the matter is that time can be one of our worst enemies because we either have too little or too much, but in the case of New Year’s resolutions or any goal for that matter, we fall into the mindset that there is always tomorrow. We have created this illusion because there is a procrastinating hope for another day and there is hope for us in being able to succeed later on. In other words, we can fail as much today so we can accomplish even more tomorrow, as if the present is a cleansing period for the future. Even more so, with our attention span significantly decreasing over the years, our drive to maintain our routine in achieving our goal is also on a decline. As our old habits didn’t form in the course of a day, our new habits will certainly take just as much time, with patience remaining a key factor.

The central idea that we need to remember if we truly want to achieve our resolution this year is summed up in an old Latin saying, ‘carpe diem’ or ‘seize the day’. We don’t need a new day or a new year to work towards self-improvement because, if we are continually waiting for tomorrow, the future never comes, as each day that passes is just another ‘tomorrow’. In fact, by making a resolution in the first place, you are ten times more likely to make other changes in your life than those who don’t. Commit to the bandwagon and make 2015 one of your most productive and successful years yet.

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