I hate to be the one to tell you, but you know that New Year’s resolution you just made? You’re almost certainly going to break it.
We don’t like to think about failure. We desperately want to believe that this will be the year we stick to a diet, go to the gym every day, or quit smoking. Each year, we make resolutions with a renewed sense of hope, that this is the year that will be different, that failure is in our past.
But this just isn’t realistic. If changing your habits was easy, there would be no need to set resolutions. You’ll almost certainly slip up at some point, and that’s OK. If you accept this, then failures can be useful—rather than being discouraging: failure is something you can prepare for and learn from.
First, let’s talk briefly about why I’m so confident you won’t keep your resolution.
The numbers aren’t on your side. Research from the University of Scranton suggests that only 8% of people who make New Year’s resolutions actually achieve their goals. Think back to previous years—how many resolutions have you made that you’ve actually kept, long term? For most people, the answer is not many.
Your brain isn’t on your side, either. The things that we resolve to do—exercise more regularly, eat a healthier diet, save more money—are exactly the habits psychology tells us are most difficult to adopt. They’re the kinds of things we know we should do but struggle to motivate ourselves to actually do in the moment: I know I’ll feel better if I go for a run this morning, but it’s cold and rainy outside and my couch is just so comfortable. This paradoxical failure of will—“I know this is good for me but I don’t want to do it right now”—is what psychologists call akrasia.
Psychological research has found that akrasia occurs particularly when activities have a delayed benefit. You won’t notice the benefits of resisting that cigarette today—in fact you’ll probably be struggling with cravings—but over time, your lungs will thank you. It’s incredibly difficult for us to be motivated by delayed consequences precisely because they’re not there clearly in front of us (whereas those pies left over from Christmas are right in front of your nose…).
Setting resolutions at the beginning of the new year can help you to see the benefits of changing your behavior more clearly, and give you an extra boost of motivation. But that boost is unlikely to last, because everyday life gets in the way. One day soon you’ll be tired, hungry and craving cake and think “Screw you, January-1st-me—why did you think a gluten-free diet was a good idea again?!’
So far it might seem like all I’ve done is bring bad news. You’re going to fail, here’s why, life is hard, sorry. But there’s also a positive spin we can put on this. Accepting that you’ll likely slip up at some point doesn’t mean you’re a catastrophic failure. In fact, these small slip-ups can be useful in a number of ways:
Failures provide valuable feedback. When we fail, we learn more about what we need to achieve our goals, and the things that stand in our way. Suppose, for example, your resolution is to stop eating sugary snacks. It’s going really well, until one day you go to a friend’s house for tea and she’s already got a delicious-looking slice of chocolate cake laid out specially for you when you arrive. Unsurprisingly, you can’t resist.
You could spend the rest of the day feeling badly, or instead, you could ask yourself “What can I learn from this, and how can I prevent this from happening again in future?” You might realize that it’s much harder for you to resist a treat when it’s put right in front of you, and kindly ask all your friends to serve you crudité in future.
Research in the psychology of motivation actually finds that the ability to anticipate failures is crucial to eventual success. Whilst a certain amount of positive thinking can help provide motivation, too much positivity can blind you to the obstacles you’ll face.
Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor at New York University, suggests using a technique known as mental constrasting: first focus on your goal and why you want to attain it, and then turn to think about the obstacles standing between you and that goal. In recent studies on healthy eating and exercise, Oettingen and colleagues found that people who performed a planning exercise designed to identify and overcome possible failures were twice as likely to stick with their goals as those who did no such exercise.
Julia Galef, president of the Center for Applied Rationality, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that runs workshops to help people better achieve their goals, suggests using a similar technique called “pre-hindsight” to identify and avoid possible failures. When you make a resolution, imagine yourself in six months time having failed to meet your goal. First, ask yourself: How surprised would I be in this situation? The less surprising it is, the more likely you are to break your resolution. Next, ask: What might be the reasons for my failure? Having identified these possible failures, you can make plans to prevent them from occurring. Ideally you then iterate this process until your answer to the question “How surprised would I be if I failed?” is “incredibly surprised,” because you’ve prepared for the biggest obstacles in your way.
If you’re expecting to keep to your resolution perfectly, and you inevitably do slip up, that small failure can feel pretty devastating. This can lead to reduced self-efficacy—the feeling that you can’t really achieve your goals—which in turn decreases your motivation. It can also lead to what’s known as the “what-the-hell effect”: “Oops, I didn’t mean to eat that piece of chocolate cake—there goes my diet! What the hell, now I might as well eat the rest of the cake.”
Being realistic about failure makes it much easier to pick yourself up and carry on. Yes, you ate that one piece of cake—but you knew this diet was going to be hard, and one brief moment of weakness doesn’t mean throwing everything away.
Finally, failure gives you the chance to step back from your goal for a second and reflect on whether it is still important to you. As well as asking, “Why did I fail, and how can I prevent it from happening again?” sometimes it can be helpful to ask yourself, “Why did I want to achieve this goal, again?”
Reflecting back on why you really care about this goal can be helpful in one of two ways: Reminding yourself why a goal is important can help renew your sense of motivation. But sometimes our goals change, and the reason we’ve failed is that we don’t really care about the goal anymore. Sometimes we realize that our goal isn’t benefitting us as much as we thought, or it means making more sacrifices than we realized. Being able to identify this, and stop the pursuit of a goal that isn’t worth it, can be as useful as reaching a desired goal.
In all likelihood, you’re going to fail at keeping your New Year’s resolution. I am too. And that’s ok—if you ever try to do anything hard, you’ll inevitably have moments of struggle. The important thing is how you react to those failures—seeing them as an opportunity to get feedback, learn, and make a better plan in future.