On January 2, millions of people begin the annual ritual of New Year's Resolutions. Memberships at health clubs and diet programs soar in the following weeks.
Sales of chocolate and alcohol decline, replaced by healthier food and drink. People take a long, hard look at their spending habits as they sort through the bills coming in January's mail. "Time for a new beginning" is the message promoted by news media.
Yet despite all this hype, most people will fail at their resolutions. By February 2, most New Year's resolutions will be no more than a dim memory. How can such apparently strong determination fizzle out so quickly? What can we do to increase the likelihood that our desire for change will translate into permanent positive change?
Let's first examine the psychology of the New Year's Resolution. During the month of December people tend to overindulge in eating, drinking, spending money and neglecting exercise. Rather than moderate these behaviors, we promise ourselves that after the holiday season is over, we will definitely take control. In the meantime, we give ourselves permission to overindulge without guilt.
Our resolve is at its peak when we feel full, drunk, or broke. It's easy to think about going on a diet as we groan from a bloating holiday meal. It's no problem to plan to quit smoking when we've just had a cigarette and replenished our nicotine level. At this point we feel confident about our New Year's resolutions because we have not yet confronted any prolonged physical deprivation or discomfort.
In early January, we are often so sick of rich food and drinks, and feeling so sluggish from lack of vigorous physical activity, that it's not difficult to abstain from overindulgence. In fact, some people look forward to more structure and discipline in their lives. However, a few weeks into the new discipline, our appetites have returned, and we start to feel deprived. It is at this point that we are most at risk for reverting back to old behaviors.
Soon we start rationalizing that this is not a good time of year, what with cold weather and our numerous obligations. When spring comes, we'll really get into shape. Thus, we make another promise to ourselves, and, now free of guilt, put off habit change for another few months. Chances are that when spring arrives, we will have another temporary surge of motivation, only to abandon it within a few weeks.
Why do people abandon their resolutions? One reason is that we become discouraged when results don't come quickly enough, or when we find that we are not necessarily happier because of them. Behavioral change requires sustained effort and commitment. It is also typically accompanied by physical discomfort. For example, reducing food, alcohol or nicotine intake from a level to which you have become accustomed, results in cravings. Forcing yourself to get off your cozy chair to exercise is often difficult when you're tired. And of course, it's easy to procrastinate until tomorrow, so that you can rationalize not disciplining yourself today.