New Year Resolutions
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Why your resolutions will fail (and what to do about it)

New Year Resolutions. I’ve been setting them for a long time, at least jokingly in conversations. It’s hard to remember, when exactly I started with it.

It’s even harder to remember which ones I followed through with.

At the beginning of 2020, shortly after reading Atomic Habits for the first time, I decided: mondays are run-days! And so I picked up jogging. I never missed a monday – until April, where I stopped altogether.

Which, in comparison, is pretty good! According to the worlds leading social fitness network Strava, people stick to their health related New Year resolutions until… January 19th.

Why are we so ridiculously bad at sticking to a resolution?

And is there something we can do about it?

There is.

But before we tackle that, we need to understand the underlying mechanics of our behaviour:

A tale of two systems

In his amazing book “Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow“, Kahneman introduces us to the idea, that we have two systems in our brain. One of them is what we usually associate with thinking. It’s the slow, rational part that works precise but tedious to solve whatever specific problem we put in front of it.

The other one happens in the background, without us feeling like we are doing something. It’s the sum of our automated and intuitive responses. It works on learned assumptions and experience.

Kahneman’s book is focused on thinking and decision making, but the picture holds true when we look at actions of all kind. Some, we do deliberately. Others just happen.

And behaviour can move between those two systems. When we start driving school, we need all our mental bandwith to simultaneously switch the gear, check our rear view mirror, slow down, set the indicator, look back over our shoulder and try to actually see something looking back over our shoulder. Give it a few months and it happens on the side while we plan our shopping list, sing along to that Adele Song or talk to our co-driver.

A habit has formed.

The hallmark of a habit is: we do it automatically. System 2 adds it to the repertoire of “Well in this situation, we’ve always done that so why don’t we give it another try?”. We don’t think about brushing our teeth in the morning. We don’t ponder over the way we tie our shoe lace.

Things in system 1 however take a great deal of pondering. If you’re not used to work out, then it’s a constant back and forth: “Working out would be good for my health” – “But I also have so much other stuff to do. Plus, I’d need to tidy up first to make some room” – “We’d probably feel better after doing it” – “But I just feel to groggy now to start” and so on.

Decisions cost energy

Every decision you actively make through system 1 costs energy. That’s why Obama never picked out his outfit in the morning: because at some point, your mental energy is exhausted and you stop making good decisions.

In a study, chess players made better decisions throughout the earlier parts of the day – regardless of whether they otherwise qualified as a morning person or night owl.

It’s the reason we’re more likely to fall to unhealthy behaviours at night. We’ve used so much energy throughout the day, that frozen pizza sounds like a decent nutritional option, skipping the new workout plan just once seems justified and staying up for another hour past bedtime appears like a fine trade-off

A roadblock called identity

When we make a resolution on New Year’s Eve, we add one more decision to act to our daily repertoire. Should we do xy? It’s new, so we already know that system 1 will be responsible for it. Regardless of what it is, just making the decision to stick to it will cost us energy every day.

That doesn’t explain yet though why we are giving up on our new resolutions. We might as well cut out some other decisions on January 19th to restore our mental energy balance. Why the new thing?

Because it’s just not you.

According to James Clear, the biggest obstacle to positive change is identity conflict. You need much more energy to perform an action that does not align with what you believe in. And the same is true for an action that doesn’t align with who you believe yourself to be.

In the long run, you won’t do something if it doesn’t fit together with who you are.

Interestingly, James Clear offers us also a way to change who we are. Through repetitive action. Every time we do something, we “cast a vote” for the identity behind it.

  • Going for a run? Vote for being a healthy person!
  • Grabbing that bag of chips and staying in bed? Vote for couch potato!

Doing something is like a suggestion: “Maybe this is who I am” – a concept known as self-signaling in behavioural economics.

If we do something often enough, we start to believe that we are the kind of person who just does these kind of things. Our identity changes and our “new thing” goes from weird and different to second nature.

How to ever get there?

But wait.

We can only stick to a new thing, if it aligns with who we are.

To change ourselves through actions, we need to repeat them over and over again.

We won’t do something over and over again, if it’s not who we are.

How are we then supposed to ever change?

Bottom-up!

First solution: by making the new thing so ridiculously easy, that the friction between it and our identity barely matters.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear explains a wide range of options that will make it easier to create a new habit (or end an old one). The most applicable one when it comes to our New Years resolutions is this one:

Make it small.

Don’t start out with “I want to run a marathon” if your last exercise session was the run to the supermarket seconds before closing hours to get that ice cream bucket. Instead, run daily for… 5 minutes.

5 minutes?

Yes, only 5 minutes. No matter your schedule, you have 5 minutes every day to get out of the house and run for 5 minutes.

With such a short commitment, it’s easy to do it over and over again until “running” becomes normal for you and bigger runs draw you in instead of scaring you away.

Small steps on the bottom lead to big impact at the top over time.

Top-down!

Second solution: change who you are.

Or better: who you will be.

In “Personality isn’t permanent”, (see my book notes here / Amazon here) Benjamin Hardy argues that who you are right now is a reflection of who you believe you will be in the future. So if you truly believe, that your future self is a marathon runner, chances are, your current self will look forward to that next run.

This has much less to do with the type of wishful thinking that we usually use when it comes to New Years Resolution and much more with Visualisation closely related to meditation.

“I’d love to be healthier, so maybe I should run a marathon” won’t bring you far.

You need a clear and compelling vision, a visible path to get there and the believe that you will execute on it.

It’s not about: what do I want to do next year?

It’s: Who do I want to be next year?

How to stick to this year’s resolution

So which way will it be? Bottom-up with small steps or top-down with a big vision?

Personally, I feel that it comes down to how my current state is and how appealing an idea feels.

  • If I am very comfortable with who I am right now and my resolution comes more from a general “I really should start xy” point, it’s unlikely that I can create a compelling vision for myself to trickle down.
  • If on the other hand I feel myself drawn strongly to something, only allowing small steps every day might leave me feel frustrated

So this year, instead of leaving it at a vague idea to be abandoned on January 19th, I will examine my plan a bit with the following questions:

  • Do I really, really want this? → Time for Future Casting, go set that vision!
  • Should I really, really want this? → Time for lots of baby steps until you really, really want it.

How about you?