The end of the year is a time to reflect and think—where have we been, who do we want to be, and what do we want to do differently next year? But what if all of the resolutions we’ve been making are missing an important detail? What if all these “New Year’s resolution” articles going viral online right now are all deeply flawed? Might this help explain why almost everyone fails to keep their New Year’s resolutions?
Let’s imagine two would-be-resolvers: Riss (“the resistor”) and Remmy (“the remover”). Like so many Americans, both of them are trying to eat healthier and exercise more, but they approach these goals differently.
Riss follows all the traditional New Year’s resolution strategies out there. He buys healthy foods and workout DVDs. To ramp up his confidence, he reads inspirational quotes, creates a New Year’s playlist, and vows to succeed. He has what health scientists call “high self-efficacy” and the magical “Law of Attraction” readers of The Secret always talk about.
Most importantly, Riss is defined by the passionate goal to resist temptation—he wont be lazy, eat that cookie, or stay at home instead of go to the gym. With resolve like that, it seems like Riss is bound to succeed.
But let’s look at Remmy: what does she do? She really doesn’t make any changes except for two small things: she removes the junk food from her house and the HBO subscription she loves.
Remmy is defined by her goal to remove, rather than resist, temptation. When she comes home, she won’t have any choice but to eat the healthy food in her cabinets. If she wants to see her favorite HBO shows, she won’t have any choice but to use the TV at her gym.
When Riss comes home, though, he’ll have his health food and workout DVDs, but also junk food and tempting Adam Sandler movies. His confidence and resolve will help him resist these temptations for a while, but over time, as research by NYU Professor Andrea Bonezzi and colleagues shows, that resolve will likely fade. It won’t be long till Riss finds himself covered in cookie crumbs watching The Waterboy and shedding a tear every time a character shouts “You can do it!”
Resisting temptation almost always fails, because people are bad at predicting how their future selves will act. We continually fail to realize that the tired, miserable, and aroused versions of ourselves might not make the same choices that our well-rested, happy, and focused selves would make. Over time and after many grueling workweeks, the hopeful people who made New Year’s resolutions after a winter vacation will be replaced by people who just want a few slices of cake. This is why we have to focus on controlling, rather than resisting, temptation.
If we’re smart about temptation, we can even use it to our advantage. In the Remmy example, she does this by making the gym the only place for her to watch her guilty HBO pleasures. Wharton Business School Professor Katy Milkman and colleagues found that stocking gyms with addictive guilty pleasures (like an audio copy of The Hunger Games on gym iPods) lead people to go to the gym more. These gym goers couldn’t resist the temptation to come again and again to consume their guilty media pleasures—all while exercising.
Keeping New Year’s resolutions is like playing chess with our future selves—we have to realistically anticipate what moves they will make come February.
Advice givers and columnists tend to choose to just fill readers with hope, the promise of new products, confidence, and a “you can do it” spirit. Of course it’s important to be confident in any goal pursuit and work to develop the self-control muscle, but resolve alone rarely leads to a successful resolution.
So rather than face a losing battle, we can remove temptation and create a battlefield where we can give ourselves a true fighting chance to keep our New Year’s resolutions.
Read Dan’s advice for New Year’s resolutions here.