Why Resolutions Fail
Real change requires strategic use of self-discipline.
Every New Year’s Eve, nearly 60% of Americans make resolutions. These resolutions range greatly but usually center around key life areas like relationships, health, spirituality and career.
Why do we make them? Because New Years brings a moment of renewal, which gives us a feeling of inspiration. Inspiration tends to lead to clarity and in an instant, we can articulate what we always knew: We need to make a change.
But a study done by the University of Scranton showed that only eight percent of those resolution-makers stick with them for any significant period of time.
Eight percent! Not 80. Eight!
These are promises that we make to ourselves to better our own lives. Why are such a dismally low percentage of people able to actually follow through?
Our Lack of Self-Discipline
Professor Roy Baumeister from Florida State University conducted groundbreaking research which provides some direction. His research over two decades ago has spurred hundreds of follow-up studies that changed our view of self-discipline.
Baumeister invited students to his lab to try to solve a series of impossible geometry puzzles. He wasn’t expecting the students to solve them. That wasn’t the point. What he wanted was to see how long they would last before they gave up.
Unbeknownst to the students, his research on them began before they looked at the first puzzle. Before the test, they were kept in a waiting room that had a tray full of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. One group of students was allowed to eat those cookies, but the other was told to restrain themselves from even touching them. Instead, they could snack on some freshly cut radishes. Radishes! That latter test group stared at those cookies longingly, having to physically hold themselves back from diving for the tray.
When it came time to take the test, the first group – the group that was allowed to indulge – as well as a control group that wasn’t subjected to any food temptations at all, lasted a good 20 minutes on the impossible test before giving up.
But the last group? Those who had to use all sorts of self-discipline while being tempted by the sights and smells of those cookies? That group gave up on the test after just eight minutes.
What the experiment showed is that self-discipline is a finite resource, and when it’s expended in one area, it is weakened and depleted in other completely unrelated areas where self-discipline might be needed as well. By using their self-discipline to not indulge in the cookies, the students in the latter group didn’t have as much self-discipline left over to use to apply to the test.
The Mental Muscle
Think of self-discipline (or willpower, grit, determination, hustle, whatever you want to call it) like a mental muscle. Just like any other muscle in our body, which can be exercised for only so long before it gives out, so too self-discipline can only be expended for a finite period before it weakens. That’s why when you come home after a long day of work, it’s so much harder to resist the bag of potato chips, control your temper or stop endlessly watching YouTube videos: you’ve used up your reservoir of self-control during your day and have very little left at night. Baumeister and his team call this state of depleted willpower “ego depletion” (“ego” in the Freudian sense of self, not arrogance).
To make a lasting change, we need to use our self-discipline with discretion.
The fact that we have a limited pool of self-discipline means that we can’t just point ourselves in a new direction in a moment of inspiration and expect our mind and body to follow through to the end. That’s why resolutions mostly fail. After the initial novelty wears off after the first few hours or days, our mental muscle weakens.
Our minds may be unlimited. But our self-discipline is limited. There’s a finite amount within each of us.
Everything we do that requires our effort needs self-discipline. Even activities we love can stretch those mental muscles. Change requires doing things that are new, uncomfortable and strenuous, which deplete our willpower, and that’s in addition to the other areas of life that continuously tax our minds.
To make a lasting change, we need to use our self-discipline with discretion. We need to allocate it strategically, so we don’t use it all up and then fail.
Actions, not Outcomes
Resolutions are destined to fail because they are centered on an outcome. They articulate a destination, but don’t give us a map showing how to get there. They don’t give us a plan of action; they only express the desired effect.
With only the end goal in mind, you are not honing in on the specific action or belief that needs to be changed. You can’t start to prune out those negative neuro-connections that hold you back, nor do you have a clear course of action to achieve the goal.
Change is a process, not an outcome.
Resolutions are outcome focused.
Habits, on the other hand, are process focused.
Change happens when you make new habits.
Change happens not when you make new resolutions. Change happens when you make new habits. So how do we create new habits?
Rituals are designated actions, designed by us to bring change in a particular area of our life.
Rituals, when repeated regularly, target specific neurological conditioning, and effectively create new neuro connections, which lead us to new habits.
The goal of a ritual is to identify an action and repeat it consistently. By leveraging the power of neuroplasticity, over time that will reduce the mental effort and self-discipline required to undertake that specific action. The brain forms and then strengthens the neuro-connections regarding that activity so that over time it feels more automatic and effortless.
The key is to allocate self-discipline when launching a new ritual and then to structure it so that it requires less and less self-discipline to maintain.
By creating rituals aimed at getting you to your resolution, you won’t just reach a resolution, you will live it. You will become it. It could take just two minutes a day, but if your rituals are consistent, then your brain will create new connections and over time, those connections will become so strong that the rituals will become habits, which will become natural.
As William James, the famous psychologist, once said, “Habits and schedules are important because they free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action.”
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