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.
A normal day in our life might look like this: The alarm clock buzzes. We hit snooze twice and steal another 16 minutes. As we get into the office, yesterday’s work crisis weighs heavily on our mind, but instead we log in and check Facebook for a while. After that, we dip in and out of meetings, chase our inbox, and start on a project that is due in 48 hours. And at 7:15, right before walking out the door, 25 minutes later than planned, we grab a sugar cookie from the communal jar to accompany us on the drive home.
A version of this routine is likely to be part of our grim reality most days, but there is one very important exception. On Jan. 1 many of us make all kinds of promises that “starting tomorrow, things are going to be different.” There is the old (2013 self) and the new (2014 self), and Jan. 1 is an opportunity to welcome the new, improved self in. As the New Year starts, we say to ourselves that the new, 2014 self will be different. We’re confident that from now on we won’t hit snooze, we’ll stop procrastinating and for sure we won’t mindlessly eat unhealthy snacks.
This kind of self-resolve is the kind of magic that keeps mankind moving. Unfortunately, come mid-January, the shiny “new self” doesn’t feel as new. After a few weeks of crashing against reality and old habit, the new self is bruised and sainted.
Given these challenges, how can we take advantage of our good intentions on Jan. 1 and make them work for us throughout the year, or at least for longer than they would naturally last?
One simple answer is to take advantage of these moments of clarity at the start of the New Year and take actions that would commit us to making good decisions in the future. Much like Ulysses and the sirens, this way, even if our future will tempt us to misbehave, we will not be able to act on our temptations.
Where in our modern life could the Ulysses-style “tying ourselves to the mast” help? Here are a few ideas that might help you make Jan. 1, 2014, different from Jan. 1 of years past:
1. Order an annual subscription to the Fruit Guy. By committing to a weekly service that delivers fresh fruit, we make having healthy food a reality. This approach has the added sweet side effect of urgency. Every week when the fruit is delivered, we know all too well that if we fail to consume the fruit in the next week, more of it will show up and we will have to waste the unused fruit. And if you like real adventures, what about a more extreme version of this? A weekly subscription to the Kale Guy?
2. Give a good friend the ability to take some money from your bank account if you break your diet. Tell this friend that if he sees you eating something unhealthy, he should withdraw a specified amount of money from your checking account and spend it. And if you find that this is not sufficiently painful, either make the amount larger, or make the deal with someone you don’t like that much (maybe your boss).
3. Set up an automatic monthly transfer from your checking account into a savings account. This quick, onetime decision to transfer money will help you spend within your budget, while also helping your future financial security.
4. Working out every day takes a lot of ongoing willpower. Joining a gym is nice but still requires the daily decision to go to the gym. Instead, a better approach is to set up recurring weekly “meetings” with friends or co-workers for workouts. This kind of social obligation is likely to hold you, and them, accountable to show up, and once you have shown up, you might as well start sweating.
5. Go to the nearby shelter and get a dog. Once you make this quick onetime decision, you are going to go for daily walks for the next decade.
Doing all of these things would make Jan. 1 a very busy day. But, by doing these things when the desire to start fresh is still strong in our mind, there is a much better chance that our good intentions will keep serving us for the better part of 2014.
By Dan Ariely and Kristen Berman, reposted from Time here.