Are New Year’s Resolutions Completely Hopeless?

It’s that time of year again, when we put down the cupcake and pick up the 10lb weights, a time to begin the “30-day butt challenge” and sign your soul away to TotalFit for that onetime-only special on a 12-month subscription. Yes, most of us are all too familiar with the feverish enthusiasm for change that comes with the start of each new year, whether that be the desire for a leaner, tighter bod, a higher-paying job, better time management skills or whatever carrot you decide on chasing in 2016. You’re not alone in this effort; nearly half of Americans make New Year’s resolutions each year, and yet, only 8% are likely to succeed, according to the University of Scranton’s Journal of Clinical Psychology.

So, why do we make these resolutions when so often they prove to be fruitless endeavors, ones that hardly see their way through February? Of course, there’s a rich tradition of the New Year’s resolution, with religious origins dating back to the Babylonians. In fact, the Romans began each year by making promises to the god of new beginnings, Janus, for whom the month of January is named. Historically, New Year’s Day offered Roman citizens an opportunity to reflect on the past and look to the year ahead. Over the centuries this custom has not changed greatly; however, our objectives have. We now have more knowledge to guide us towards success, but we must first recognize what are some common downfalls to avoid in your 2016 endeavor.

Don’t assume the new year will automatically usher in a “new you.” The idea seems to be that the start of each year evokes the birth of some advanced version of ourself, one now capable of handling the latest task at hand. In a way, resolutions are a way to identify a sharp transition between the former, inferior version of ourselves, to the new and improved self. Herein lies the hitch. Despite this blind optimism, we do not miraculously transform when the clock strikes midnight on January 1st, thus setting us up for the ultimate failure. Because we are obviously not instantly superior to our past selves, we are incapable of anticipating how much of a challenge we’re gearing up for. The new you isn’t just going to wake up on the 1st of January with a newfound will to exercise daily and exhibit self-control; it’s going to take some adjusting.

Even so, New Year’s resolutions can be useful as they help us identify important issues and serve as a salient reference point for setting a goal. A group of researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania recently stopped to ask, “Why do we make New Year’s Resolutions?” and found that Google searches for the word diet go up dramatically at the start of each year. But what’s fascinating is that this is not unique to the new year but searches also spike on birthdays, the start of a new month, the start of a new week and federal holidays, all of which researchers have deemed “temporal landmarks.” Basically, these temporal landmarks serve as a way for us to mark who we are and how we’ve grown and matured.

Self-improvement is the name of the game and there are a few goals that frequently make the list: to lose weight and improve fitness, improve communication with friends and family, quit smoking, cut back on drinking, save money, reduce stress, volunteer, go back to school or learn a new trade, to get more sleep and to travel. No matter on which of these areas you chose to focus, there are some useful tips to apply to any strategy.

First, clearly define your goals. Specificity is key in setting achievable resolutions. Vague intentions are difficult to measure and therefore challenging to determine. Instead of saying, “I plan to improve my job performance,” narrow in on a specific trait that you wish to refine like public speaking or organizational skills. To further ensure victory, be sure to accompany these specialized resolutions with a specific plan of action that includes detailed steps and benchmarks. Then, you want to track your progress. Any change you’re after should be measurable and these increments will be a source of motivation as you progress as well as help you identify any plateaus. Remember to remain patient and keep in mind that progress is often non-linear and that some weeks will see greater accomplishment than others. Sometimes initial progress is painfully slow, but remember that these are lasting changes we’re after and those usually take some time. Moreover, when choosing an objective remember that the most practical goals are those that challenge us while staying reasonably within reach. For example, do not plan to go to the gym 5 days a week at the start of January, rather, set a minimum of 3 days a week to exercise for 40 minutes or more. This way, you have the option to do more, but don’t feel defeated for the times you cannot.

Exercise your willpower as you would exercise any other muscle because the more you use it throughout the day, the more it tires—behavioral scientists call this phenomenon “willpower depletion.” Did you ever wonder why dieters almost always break a healthy streak at night? After resisting unyielding temptations or dodging deep-fried desires all the damned day, your willpower tank becomes dangerously depleted. Make sure to identify this weakness and avoid the kitchen afterhours or have a light healthy snack readily available to stave off late night cravings. There’s research to suggest that we can strengthen our willpower by using it more frequently. Whenever you’re feeling the urge to surrender to impulse, pause to take a few deeps breathes and reflect upon your goal. Like any other muscle, you must give your willpower the time to recover. To do so, try pairing a gratifying guilty pleasure with a challenging behavior that yields delayed benefits. For example, pair going to the gym with watching an hour of your favorite television program. Now all that stands in the way of finding out what happened to Lady Mary Crawley on last week’s Downton Abbey is about 40 minutes on the treadmill.

Another tool in your kit this year will be accountability. We live in the era when all of our friends are just a click away and we can make our daily activities public knowledge in a matter of seconds. Use social media to your advantage and go public with some of your larger goals when in need of accountability or extra support. Sherry Pagoto, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, studies how social networks affect behavior and found that people have “better outcomes when sharing their ambitions on Twitter and Facebook versus when sharing them with their in-person friends.” There you have it. And do share your progress with your cyber community, but just be sure not to gloat too much.

This next technique may seem obvious but is too often overlooked for its simplicity – put it on your calendar! How many times have you heard someone say they can’t “find the time” to do something? Well, we don’t find time – we choose how we spend our time so make your new goals a priority and actually schedule them in advance. If you want to make time to re-organize your closet, it’s important to block off time in the week to make it happen. Consider these time-blocks important appointments that cannot be missed, just like any professional engagement.

Mind-set is also important and it’s critical to recognize that it’s better to do something than nothing. As apparent as that may sound, it means chucking our “all or nothing” attitudes and making the best of any scenario. So, if you planned to spend an hour studying French today but, because of an unexpected errand, you only have time to do 20 minutes, you should still spend whatever time you have and make the most of that time. Don’t give up if you can’t reach 100% because 75% or even 30% is far better than a zero.

Finally, when you get knocked down, get right back up. It’s not always about sheer willpower, but rather about resiliency. We are human; we are deeply flawed and bound to make mistakes in achieving our 2016 resolution, but with every relapse comes an opportunity to reevaluate and recommit to your path. The worst mistake you can make is to let what would be a temporary failure morph into total termination. With these tips and a pat on the back, we here at GRAVITAS wish you a Happy New Year and the best of luck on this journey.

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