January 6, 2013

The Science Behind New Year’s Failures

It’s now 2013 and I resolved to ditch the resolution tradition. I mean, why? Honestly, it’s because I’m tired of feeling like a failure when I have already forgotten them by the end of January. “They” say it takes 3 weeks to form a habit and a shorter time to break it. After doing some research, I’ve seen anywhere from 21 days to 66 to establish a habit.

Everyone claims to have a busy life. I can’t speak for others, but I know I rarely have spare time. So how do I fit a new habit into that full life? It’s like there really isn’t room to devote to changing or adding something. Trying to add in an extra half hour to dedicate to a new workout when I’m already pressed for time is really impossible to maintain. Think about it. Just one unexpected emergency arises and, poof, one day down.

And so it starts.

Can a busy life just be our scapegoat excuse? It’s hard to say. Franklin Covey, the author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” states that 40% of us claim it’s a busy life that causes us to fail at our resolutions and also feel guilty about that. For myself, I only have one example to back that up: I’m a high school teacher and, in my experience, I am literally emotionally and physically exhausted when I get home. Every day. I don’t take naps, but it’s hard to get myself up off the couch for a couple of hours. The mere thought of getting up to do anything at all – much less work out or do some house cleaning – makes me sigh. It’s like trying to make that one decision to do the right thing is just too much. I shouldn’t say this in public but – eh, what the hell – I see this in my grading, as well. After two class periods of 25 English papers each, my standards go out the window. I am just too mentally exhausted to be fair or thorough. I find myself grading the paper in a hurry, assessing a grade based on the average work effort historically put forth by that student. There is none of that “grade one class period a day” kind of thing. There simply isn’t time.

Sidebar Tip for Parents: Look over your child’s work and approve it before submission. A well-written paper is super-easy to grade, whereas a poorly-written, confusing paper fries a teacher’s brain and makes it all too easy to assess a low grade.

Apparently, I’m not the only one. John Tierney of the New York Times reported that there is actually a phenomenon called “decision fatigue.” After a stressful day or, for me, a regular day at work, it’s difficult for a person to make even one more choice. Tierney says, “One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing.” The second shortcut makes everything all too easy, hence the lack of motivation and action.

As I’m sure many of us can surmise, the other biggest reason for New Year’s resolution failures is overloading with goals that are all too lofty. The average number of resolutions on a person’s list is 5 to 10. People feel the need to make it a common number, for some reason, rather than a realistic number. That number of resolutions may only make for a 3-bullet list but, hey, at least they’re meaningful and, therefore, more attainable.

The other issue with the lengthy list is that most people put too many significant life changes on that list. It becomes a list of “in a perfect world I want to…” actions instead of a list of “I can accomplish this…” actions. Rather than putting a goal of stopping smoking as the top resolution and then a few that require much less fastidiousness, people want to completely overhaul their lives and start loading themselves up with major lifestyle changes. Realistically speaking, it’s just not possible. They set themselves up for failure before the year even starts.

How can you beat the guilt?

  • Revamp your resolutions – yes, right now. Pick one major change and a few smaller goals. Quit trying to overload yourself with too much.
  • Give yourself a reasonable deadline for accomplishing them. Maybe you don’t have a deadline. That’s okay too. Be a little easy on yourself.
  • Track your progress. This is especially pertinent to weight loss and exercise goals. Holding yourself accountable through a smartphone app or a written diary gives you a visual of your accomplishments – or your level of slacking.
  • Remember that a resolution is just that: a resolution. Forgive yourself for breaking your promise. Pick yourself back up, dredge up some new resolve and get back to it.
  • If you’re a sticky-note reminder person, that might help. However, MOVE the stickies from time to time. Leaving a note on your mirror makes it too easy to overlook by week 2; it becomes familiar and ignored.
  • Reevaluate your resolutions at a pre-determined time period. Revise as necessary. Your life is a dynamic experience, and your goals should reflect your life changes.

That being said, I really only made three informal resolutions: to stick with Project 365 this time. Two years ago I managed to get halfway through February. My other resolution is to get back on the wagon of watching my weight now and getting back to my old exercise routine after I recover from the ankle surgery I had in December. I was doing it before but it’s all too easy to order a pizza when you’re not supposed to be walking or standing for much time at all. Lastly, to post to redOrbit more often. I’m embarrassed of how much I’ve slacked on that.

If I can do it, so can you. Even if I fail, it doesn’t mean you will. Good luck in your resolutions and in all your 2013 endeavors. Happy New Year, y’all!

Image Credit: Photos.com

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