Why your New Year’s resolutions fail

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As we continue to work our way through the second month of 2019, it is easy to get caught up in the demands of the spring semester. Memories of winter break relaxation are long gone, buried in an ever-growing mound of assignments and preparation for exams. But for many of us, just five weeks ago, the air was buzzing with hope and the promise of a new year. This was manifested in resolute ambitions ranging from reading more books to working out every day, to putting an end to procrastination once and for all.

Today, how many of you have followed through with those grand self-promises?

According to a 2012 study by the University of Scranton, less than 10 percent of resolutions are successfully maintained throughout the year. By now, it is common knowledge that most resolutions don’t make it past the first couple of weeks, and it’s socially acceptable to admit or even joke about giving up as early as possible.

Still, there’s something alluring about New Year’s resolutions that causes a worldwide return every year. The idea of a clean slate and fresh start is attractive to people who feel they didn’t quite live up to their expectations of the past year. It’s a cyclical process that we’ve trapped ourselves in, from making weighty resolutions, failing, and feeling bad about failing, to jumping on board for a new chance to try it all over again.

This collective idealism contributes to what psychologist Janet Polivy calls the “false-hope syndrome,” our constant desire to change ourselves in conjunction with our inability to distinguish between realistic and unrealistic aims.

“When unreasonable expectations for self-change are not met, people are likely to feel frustrated and despondent, and to give up trying to change. The unrealistic beliefs with which they begin self change attempts–and the corresponding unattainable criteria for success–may thus be responsible for the failure of the attempts, creating false hope and then dashing it,” Polivy wrote.

On New Year’s day, this is only fueled by a phenomenon coined “cultural procrastination” by Carleton University psychology professor Tim Pychyl. According to Pychyl, society encourages us to create these false hopes without bound, but allows us to keep them as abstract intentions rather than true resolutions.

“When you look at New Year’s, by definition, you’re making your intention to start at least days from now, if not weeks or months from now. That gap between intention and action is why I call it culturally prescribed procrastination. Because if you recognize, for example, that you should get more fit, you should change your diet or you should quit smoking, there’s nothing like a good intention now where no action is required to make you feel good,” Pychyl said.

The positive aspect of resolutions is that they compel us to self-reflect and see what areas of our life need improvement. However, by focusing solely on the reflecting and not the carrying out, we deprive ourselves of the ability to ever make those changes happen “now”. We accept the short term gratification of announcing our intentions to work on our shortcomings without actually resolving to act on them.

Perhaps it’s time for us to reexamine our approach to resolutions. The New Year has passed, but that shouldn’t stop us from continuing to set new goals every month, week, or even day. Maybe we should stop thinking so grand and start small instead. After all, how can we expect ourselves to follow through with the long term commitments when we haven’t even mastered our short term goals? If we can transform our resolutions from empty promises to doable, ongoing efforts, there will be no need for the guilt that comes with each new year.

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