Happy New Year!
First of all, allow me to offer this slightly belated “Happy New Year!!!” I know I’m 5 days late. Regardless of how 2014 was for you, I hope 2015 is better in every way. I wish joy, growth, satisfaction, and excitement for all my readers this year.
Why it's Hard to Keep Your New Years Resolutions
It’s a time-honoured tradition: starting the New Year off with idealistic enthusiasm, committing to making big changes to your lifestyle for the better. Gyms and personal trainers get a sudden influx in patronage, while tobacco and alcohol companies likely see a temporary dip in profits. No matter the goal, people are intent on making this year better than the last.
But as the months pass and the first quarter of the year draws to a close, the gym memberships lapse and we start to regress on the new habits that we longed to implement. We slide back to how things were before, perhaps with some sense of discouragement or disappointment. We might privately offer ourselves the consolation, “There’s always next year”.
As a counsellor, I talk to folks about these kinds of experiences year-round. I am quite literally in the business of helping people make changes to their lives. In my experience, the resolutions people make in January are not all that different than the hopes and goals they strive toward in June, but there is definitely a difference in terms of the volume at this time of year.
People often wonder why it can be so hard to stick with the resolutions they make in the New Year. The reality is, making significant changes to our lives is rarely an easy task – it usually takes a lot of hard work and determination. But when we take a closer look at what’s happening when people struggle to make a change, there are a couple things that I believe are worth paying attention to.
Duty Vs. Desire
Usually when people set New Years resolutions, they’re intent on doing something differently. That often looks like “Stop doing __________”, “Do ____________ less often”, or “Spend more time doing ___________”. People rarely consider the relationship they have to the thing they’re trying to quit, which can be significant – even if it’s really unhelpful or harmful in the big picture.
Take smoking for example. There’s a reason people start and continue to smoke cigarettes. Even if there are some unattractive aspects of the habit, it works in some important ways (managing stress, for instance). The fact that there is some benefit to the things we strive to quit makes them all the more difficult to desist. To some extent, we have a desire to maintain our “bad habits” because they’re not bad in every conceivable way.
Going to the gym may be similar. When you weren’t exercising so much, what were you doing? Perhaps watching more TV? Playing more video games? Maybe spending more time on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone? These kinds of idle activities require far less effort and generally offer more immediate gratification than the complex tasks involved in going to workout. In that way, they can be more appealing – especially for those of us without a surplus of spare time on our hands. Let us also not forget that exercise is inherently challenging. If it isn’t, then it isn’t really exercise. If something is hard – even if we know it’s good for us – it’s common for people to dig their heels in against following through with it.
My point here is that whether we’re trying to stop participating in a “bad habit” or starting to take up a “good” one, we can be of at least two minds about actually making the change. On one hand, we know it might benefit us, but on the other, part of us likes the things that aren’t so great for us – otherwise we never would have started doing them in the first place.
There are reasons beyond our individual interests as to why we might consider reducing our alcohol intake or increasing our exercise regime. The fact that scores of people flock to overcrowded gyms from January to March is evidence of a heavy social component of the New Years resolution phenomenon. That is to say, getting in shape is something we “should” be doing according to the overriding values of the dominant culture.
It’s no secret that I’m keenly interested in language and the ways in which we talk about things. I think that the words we use to describe our aspirations are telling of where they’re coming from. When people say things like, “I want to do that”, or “I’d like to try this”, it may point more toward a personal longing. On the other hand, statements like “I really should be doing _________”, or, “I shouldn’t be doing ___________ so much” suggest the presence of a social expectation.
The word “should” implies that there is social pressure. Expectations can feel like impositions – conditions that are being pushed onto us. When we feel pushed in a particular direction, it is common for us to dig our heels in – to resist. This is the other side of why following through with New Years resolutions can be so difficult. When it feels like something we should be doing, we’re almost guaranteed to be at least somewhat more reluctant or resistant than we would if we used the word “want” instead.
Navigating Duty and Desire
I like to avoid thinking in black and white terms. I therefore do not expect that someone’s New Years resolution would fall solely under the umbrella of either duty or desire. Instead, I believe that almost everything we do aligns with both duty and desire to some extent. It’s a combination of the two, rather than one or the other.
For example, someone could decide to quit smoking cigarettes because they would save nearly $4000 per year, keep up with their kids better, and reduce their risk of heart disease and lung cancer. At the same time, their family members might be saying “We really think it’s time you quit smoking”. There is both desire and duty at play in this scenario. From my perspective, the likelihood that this person will follow through with the resolution to quit hinges on how meaningful the desire aspect is to the individual.
Here’s another example: If someone resolves to lose 20 pounds in 2015, they may be motivated by the desire to have more energy and feel more fit. However, they may also be responding to the barrage of body-image messages filtered through the various media channels of our society (which we’re all unavoidably subject to). The former may fit more with personal desire, while the latter is based on a social expectation to look a certain way, which relates more closely with duty. I believe that this person is more likely to struggle if he/she is coming more from a place of duty than desire. But if the personal meaning of losing 20 pounds is greater than the social expectation to do so, I would bet money that they would succeed.
What You Can Do About It
Almost every resolution we make, no matter the time of year, contains elements of both duty and desire. I see the most success in people who are able to closely align with the desire part of their objective, letting the duty part take a back seat. There’s no sense in outright denying that part of a goal we set might align with a sense of duty – what counts is how much weight we give it.
I encourage people to identify the “want” in their resolutions and hold that close as they take the steps toward achieving them. Making our goals and aspirations personally meaningful and hanging on to those reasons is key in our success.
Have you ever successfully achieved a New Years Resolution? If so, how did you do it?
Do you have any suggestions for folks who might struggle to hold the desire aspect of their resolutions close?
Do you have any recommendations of what not to do when striving toward a goal or resolution?