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New Year’s resolutions are the election promises of everyday life. You say the words, make the commitment, swear on everything you hold dear that you’ll fix those potholes, but when push comes to shove it’s a decade on and the cars are still bouncing and rolling over a broken road.
Resolutions are the same. You swear that you’ll never touch another chocolate, but two months later you’re guiltily staring at an empty box of fondants wondering where your self control went.
Why are resolutions so hard?
What can you do to actually effect changes in your life?
Where is the second box of chocolates you got for Christmas that you thought you hid behind the pasta in the pantry because no one ever makes pasta except you?*
All good questions. Let’s start off with why resolutions always fail.
Habits are a wonderful feedback loop that makes you do the same thing again and again. You essentially train yourself to perform a certain behavior over and over through reward and repetition.
Every day, on the way to work, I sit in the same place on the train. There are some rationalizations that I’ve come up with to explain it (it’s close to the exit, but far away enough that people won’t sit next to me at 6:20am) but the main reason I sit there is because it’s the place I sat down on my first day at the job. I sat in one spot, I enjoyed the trip, and my brain said “hell yeh, let’s do this every day!”
Habits are incredibly easy to form and staggeringly hard to break. Breaking them has been a major focus of psychological research for decades. It’s not a simple exercise. One study found that after moving offices, people still tried to take the same mode of transport, even when it was the less effective option. Imagine getting on a bus to go to work even though it was now a 10 minute walk. Even though you knew it would take longer. That’s a habit, and they pretty much define our day-to-day lives.
Changing your diet or exercising more may seem like a simple change, but it actually involves the upheaval of your entire life:
Join a gym? You’ll have to take time away from other important things, like sleep.
Cut back on carbs? You’re going to have to shop differently, maybe stay away from the aisle with the cookies, and maybe even find a new place to see your friends that doesn’t serve fries.
Not easy. Not easy at all.
So when you make a new year’s resolution, you have to break your existing habits and form new ones. This is made even harder because the existing habits are usually the easiest behaviors — which is why they were formed in the first place — and the new habits are pretty damn hard. It takes time and effort to form healthy habits, and time is the one thing many of us barely have enough of.
It’s Not All About You
Choice and motivation are tricky subjects. When you make a resolution, you are saying “I am going to choose different behaviours!”.
It sounds great. It’s also not really how the world works.
Your behavior is influenced by any number of factors outside your control; getting fit is much easier if there are accessible gyms and parks nearby. Live in a low-income suburb where the parks aren’t safe? Much harder to get your weekly exercise. Want to cut back on drinking? Not as easy if you live in a rural area and the only place that does food is the local pub.
Changing your life might be simple, but it’s never easy.
Resolutions are also made worse by the fact that many of us try to go it alone. It’s in their very nature — a resolution is all about “Me”: “I’m going to get more exercise” or “I’m going to cut back on heroine sandwiches”. You don’t make a resolution to help others, because the whole idea is that you are going to improve yourself.
Change is Hard
If it sounds like I’m speaking from experience, it’s because I am. The one message that I’ve learned through my personal life and in public health is that it is incredibly hard to change your lifestyle. And one thing we all forget when making resolutions is that it is all about lifestyle change. You can’t just go to the gym. You have to make time, find the money, maybe get a babysitter or work an extra shift. Maybe you can’t afford a gym so you start running twice a week.
When I made resolutions I never planned like that. I told myself I would improve, and then went about trying to do it. More often than not, I ended up feeling like shit months later when, instead of being fitter, I’d actually gained weight.
Getting it Right
If you’ve made a new year’s resolution, you don’t have to despair. There’s a lot going against you, but there are some evidence-based tricks to keeping to your promise to yourself:
- Do it with friends. There’s strong evidence that trying to keep a new year’s resolution is much easier if there is a social factor, particularly if friends and family are involved. This is mirrored in research that has found that planning for social support in weight-loss increases efficacy.
- Start with something small. Notice how all of the things I talked about seem small when you say them but are actually major life changes? Try doing something that will barely change your day, and building. I lost 2kg over a couple of months by taking a carrot every day to work as a snack. Small, easy to do, and effective. Evidence shows that smaller, easier interventions will give you a better chance of success.
- Clearly define your goal. Setting a clear goal is an evidence-based way to help you change your life. Motivation is much easier to come by when you know exactly what you want to do. Instead of “get fit”, try “walk for 10 mins each day”. Instead of “lose weight” maybe “drink only water on weekdays”.
- Manipulate your habits. Pair your goal with something that you enjoy to promote good habits. Start only getting coffees after a walk/run, so that you associate the good feeling of coffee with the activity you are trying to keep up. Do it enough and it won’t even feel like a chore any more.
- Commit. The hardest part. Don’t stop doing it. Don’t think about the new year. Make your change part of your everyday life and it won’t even feel like you are trying to do anything at all.
It sounds easy, but it isn’t. Changing your life never is.
But making small, clearly defined goals that you can commit to and make habits will make it that much less difficult.
New Year’s resolutions may be a waste of time, but these boring, obvious tips can make changing your health a whole lot easier.
They worked for me.
If you liked the article, or are just a fan of healthy living/guzzling chocolate, let me know by following on twitter, facebook, or medium, or just by sending me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
*After half an hour of frantic searching, you’ll remember you already re-gifted it to a friend because it was full of alcohol creams and you’re trying to go easy on the booze. Resolutions are the worst.