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(Edited from original article published on March 7th, 2010.)
If you are like many people, you made some resolutions to improve your life in some way in the new year. Maybe you resolved to quit smoking, eat less, or exercise more. Maybe you made a commitment to floss every day. But chances are this is not the first time you have tried to make such changes. A week into the new year, you may already be struggling to keep your promise to yourself, or you may already have faltered and perhaps even abandoned your resolve.
Why do New Year’s resolutions seem to be so hard to keep?
Wanting to achieve something, even a lot, is no guarantor of success. Wishing doesn’t make it so. In addition to desire, then, I must know how to get what I want. I must take pains to discover the best course of action. Reality is a ruthless arbiter, and so reason must ultimately guide me if I am to reach my goal. Many of us, though, rely on our intuitions to tell us what will work, and we are often led astray.
Break down bigger goals into measurable sub-goals.
What are some of the strategies that work when trying to keep a resolution? One of them is breaking down bigger goals into more manageable, measurable sub-goals, and keeping track of our progress with a chart or diary. Another successful approach is to tell friends about our goals, thereby eliciting their encouragement while also increasing the cost of failure. Teaming up with a friend who has a similar goal, say exercise, is even better, as you are likely to help each other keep going when your impulse would be to slack off.
One thing that does not tend to work is having unrealistic expectations. Yes, you can lose that spare tire—but maybe not by Valentine’s Day. You can quit smoking—but cold turkey might or might not be the best method for you. This is not to say that you should not set an ambitious goal. You just have to be realistic about the time and effort that will be required to reach it.
A realistic plan for self-improvement must also make allowances for setbacks. New habits usually take time to form. There is no reason to expect oneself to go from flossing maybe once a week, for instance, to flossing every day without fail. People who become despondent when they fall off the wagon are less likely to pick themselves up and get back on again. But the ability to pick oneself up after faltering is precisely what is required for success in most areas of life.
Another pitfall is making unrealistic assessments about one’s level of self-control. According to Professor Loran Nordgren of the Kellogg School of Management, this leads people to undermine their efforts by placing themselves in situations likely to try their resolve. A better strategy would be to reduce or eliminate tempting stimuli, say by emptying out the candy drawer and restocking it with healthy but satisfying snacks.
There is one more important factor that will affect whether or not you keep your resolution this year: whether you think of it as an obligation or as a choice. You might feel like you have to lose weight in order to conform to other people’s standards. You might think you need to quit smoking because your doctor told you to. You might imagine that you must clock more hours on the job in order to buy that new car. Well, if you haven’t heard it before, let me be the first to set you free: you don’t have to do anything.
Let me be the first to set you free: you don’t have to do anything.
Morally speaking, you really are free to live your life as you see fit. You can smoke or not, exercise or not, floss or not, work hard or not. What you are not free to do is escape the consequences of your actions. But there is no inherent duty to act one way or another, and thinking that there is will only breed resentment and ultimately undermine your efforts.
Far more inspiring is to focus on values. As David Kelley has written , “Speaking the language of values instead of the language of duty, ‘want-to’ instead of ‘have-to,’ is a daily reminder that we live by choice, with both the freedom and the responsibility that that entails.” If you choose to honor values like health or productiveness because of the benefits they bring to your life, and if you keep those values in mind on a daily basis, you are far more likely to stick to your self-improvement program. That doesn’t mean you can’t also choose to lock yourself into a commitment, say, to exercise with a friend. But it is good to remember that you have freely chosen this commitment. The cold, dead hand of duty is a poor substitute for values. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to—oops, I mean, I want to—go floss my teeth.