It’s that time of year again where people realize they need to make changes in order to be more successful, happier, or just better in general. It is natural to think of the new year as a chance to start over. It is a different year and the next digit in the year column is worthy of reflection and overhaul. In fact, for those who recognize the changes that need to be made, you have successfully gotten past the first step. Unfortunately, resolutions do not work because people have conflicting desires and there is scientific evidence that proves this.
Conflicting Desires and Resolutions
One of the most common New Year’s resolutions involves losing weight, which is why gym memberships swell in January by up to 30% in some urban areas. People look at themselves throughout the year and see weight they wish could be lost. The new year signifies a time to break from their old habits and take the step in the right direction.
However, the biggest problem is that people do not want to break from their old habits. In the large majority of people who make weight loss resolutions, the abrupt change in year is not the catalyst for change. Rather, it is usually weeks or months prior to the new year that people recognize their physical flaws. Despite recognizing their flaws, they do nothing about it, but instead wait for a fresh start. The reason most people wait is because they enjoy the refined sugar, pizza, pasta, soda, and all other unhealthy foods while at the same time they want to lose weight. These conflicting desires prevent instant action and make success for a New Year’s resolution a distant allusion. According to a survey of 3,000 people by Richard Wiseman in 2007, of all resolutions, 88% end in failure so the odds are against you.
If you feel as though there is something wrong with your body, your career, or any other part of yourself, make the change the instant you recognize that is the case. “Oh, I’ll wait until tomorrow” is not good enough if you want to have any real success. Recognize why it is that you are conflicted about your desires and then be absolute in your resolve one way or the other.
The Science of New Year’s Resolutions
There is also scientific evidence that shows why maintaining resolutions is so difficult within the brain. The less developed pre-frontal cortex takes on such tasks as abstract problem solving, short-term memory, and maintaining focus. When preoccupied with a new task of sticking to your New Year’s exercise resolution, for example, the prefrontal cortex cannot cope for long.
One experiment performed at Stanford University divided subjects into two groups. Group A was given a two digit number while Group B was given a seven digit number. Subjects in both groups were told to walk to the end of the hall and choose between chocolate cake or fruit salad. The subjects in Group B were almost twice as likely to choose chocolate cake due to what Baba Shiv calls the additional “cognitive load” that the larger number presented. Numerous other studies met with similar results.
Making the Change Stick
Like any other muscle, the willpower muscle in your brain has to be exercised constantly. Even though it is nice to think of the new year as a fresh start to make the change, you probably will not succeed in this endeavor. Indeed, even if you can reconcile your conflicting desires, without practice strengthening willpower, you will most likely fail anyway. My recommendation, and goal for myself, is to make frequent, immediate, and unyielding changes to willpower every time I realize a flaw that can be corrected. Lucky for me, there are plenty.