Chances Are You Have Already Failed Your New Year’s Resolution. Here’s Why:

By Dr. Zhichun Zhou

A generic list of New Year’s resolutions written in pencil

A new year has begun, and millions of people have reviewed their lives and made resolutions to improve themselves in the coming months. But regardless of what the commitment was — whether it was to lose weight, quit smoking, read more books, or one of a thousand other self-improvement goals — the vast majority of those promises will have been broken by the middle of January and the resolutions abandoned.

Why?

It’s because we are thinking about resolutions all wrong. While the goals are admirable, by measuring them over the following year, rather than recognizing our small accomplishments along the path of self-improvement, we set ourselves up for disappointment. In addition, because we don’t change other behaviors associated with our goals, we further feel disappointed when we don’t receive immediate gratification and the whole goal ends up feeling like a terrible chore.

But don’t be too hard on yourself when you do fail your resolution, and odds are you will. The fact is, this is all part of human behavior.

Behavioral science proposes two layers of causes to understand human behavior. The first layer of cause is the reinforcement contingency produced by every single instance of behavior. The second layer of cause is the relation between environmental factors occurred before and after every single instance of behavior.

Therefore, from the perspective of behavioral science, there are a few causes of failing New Year’s resolutions:

· A lack of reinforcement contingencies produced by every single instance of behavior that help maintain the New Year’s resolution. For example, a person may have committed to reading more books that year but won’t get praised for buying a book to start the task. Another person who wants to lose weight choses an apple over a bag of chips for lunch, and no one notices or praises them. Efforts are made with no immediate gratification.

· The verbal demand in the New Year’s resolution (e.g., lose 20 pounds) generated by oneself produces instant gratification but created long-term drain due to the response cost (e.g., consistent responses are required to meet the verbal demand). It feels great to commit to losing weight, but the psychological reward doesn’t happen until the scale shows that weight has been lost. And that reward — the brief moment of feeling accomplished when the scale shows progress- is fleeting at best. In between, it’s a grind. Further, there are high response costs that pop up frequently between the rewards at the scale, such as having to pass on the candy bowl at work, cutting out that favorite alcoholic beverage after work, or forcing yourself to eat broccoli and spinach while the family enjoys the weekly pizza night. Day after day, you make sacrifices for that brief moment of joy and accomplishment.

· Unrealistic verbal demands embedded in the New Year’s resolutions. Many set goals that are too difficult or literally impossible to attain. You may vow to start running and compete in the Boston Marathon by the end of the year, but the fact is that’s just not going to happen, unless you are already in amazing shape and are in your early 20’s or 30’s. Most of the participants in the marathon trained for years to get to the Boston event, and many of those still struggle to finish.

· The social situations failed to signal consistent reinforcement contingencies. The behavior term used to describe the social situations is meta-discriminative stimuli. The behavior supporting the New Year’s resolution has not been governed by a social situation, in which the New Year’s resolution has been successfully kept by most people. This means when most people stick to their New Year’s resolution in a social setting, this social situation then fails to correspond or signal a reinforcement contingency that maintains the behavior supporting the New Year’s resolution. For example, a person who wants to lose weight may eat carrot sticks at a party, but instead of being praised for such healthy choices, they likely will hear comments about how delicious the other food is, urges to try the chips and dip, and even comments such as “This is a party! Loosen up!”

· One fails to see the future self or extended self as the result of a successful New Year’s resolution. The future self or extended self is too far away from the present self. Losing weight is a great goal, for example, but what does that mean two years from now? How different does a person have to be to be someone who loses weight and keeps it off? How will that change sleep habits, how one dresses, and morning routines? In other words, we see the goal of being thinner, but we fail to take into account the lifestyle changes and associated costs that we will have to adopt to be that thinner person for the rest of our lives.

Being aware of these causes, what should we do to not to fail New Year’s resolutions?

· Find your preference (e.g., your lover/friend, your favorite activity), and increase or maintain the number and/or length of contact with your preference after every single instance of behavior that supports the New Year’s resolution. In other words, surround yourself with positive items that are reinforcing and meaningful to you.

· Lower the requirement of single instance of behavior that supports the New Year’s resolution. Start with a lighter verbal demand; if your resolution is to read a book, start by setting the goal of reading one page per day. If your goal is to lose weight, start with trying to lose one pound a week. If you fail one week, that’s OK, you can then review what you did in the past week, alter your routine and try to lose that pound the next week, or read that page the next day.

· Set realistic goals. If your New Year’s resolution is to lose weight, start by maintaining your weight first, and then set the goal of exercising 10 mins per day and gradually increase the exercise time, in combination with gradually altering your diet to healthier foods and smaller portions. If your goal is to run a marathon, start by running around the block, and gradually increase the distance as the task becomes easier.

· Form a small “New Year’s resolution” team. The team members should be close to each other in terms of social space [very important!] and encourage and help each other to maintain their realistic goals. Every single instance of behavior supporting the New Year’s resolution is then followed by a reinforcer (e.g., your preference mentioned above). This reinforcement should be delivered either by yourself or your team member(s). This works best if you can form a “team” of people close to you who are supportive and who you interact with frequently, such as a best friend, a sibling, or even a neighbor. They then become part of the constant positive reinforcement that is needed. Other alternatives include joining a group like Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, a local reading groups, or one of the thousands of social groups found on apps like Meetup.com, and then finding one or two people in that group (who you get along with) who can act as your support.

· Practice episodic future thinking. Specifically, imagine a “future you” after you successfully accomplish your New Year’s resolution. In other words, what will you be like when you achieve your goals, and what do your daily routines look like after your resolution is now part of your every-day life? This practice helps you close the gap between the present you and the future you; in other words, it brings the future you and the present you closer in terms of social and temporal space. This way, you are less likely to feel overwhelmed by the goals set for yourself because you can imagine a future self as a result of the successful New Year’s resolution, and you will be more prepared for what the “future you” does on a daily basis to maintain your success.

Dr. Zhichun Zhou is an Assistant Professor of Behavioral Psychology in the Webster University School of Education in St. Louis, Missouri.

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