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Sick of Failing at Your New Year’s Resolutions? There Is a Better Way

7 minute read
Van Bavel is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at New York University and Director of the Social Identity & Morality Lab; Packer is a Professor of Psychology at Lehigh University. They are the authors of The Power of Us: Harnessing Our Shared Identities to Improve Performance, Increase Cooperation, and Promote Social Harmony.

We have an embarrassing confession: our New Year’s resolutions for 2023 are nearly identical to the resolutions we made for 2022 (which were remarkably similar to 2021, 2020, and pretty much every year as far as we can remember).

A year ago, we held such lofty ambitions. We would exercise more, use social media less, rise earlier, read more books, eat healthier, write more, reduce our carbon footprint, learn to meditate….

We started strong.

But a few weeks in, as January’s cold morphed into the slushy days of February, our resolve slackened. Twitter reappeared on our phones and we doomscrolled late into the evening. Our warm beds seemed to grip us tighter when the alarm went off for our morning jogs. We began to hit snooze, once, twice, then three times. And, well, meditation never had a hope.

We had largely failed.

Will this stop us from doing the same thing this New Year’s? Absolutely not. But we have learned to approach our New Year’s resolutions in an entirely different way and we think you should too.

As the calendar turns from one year to the next, millions of people will resolve to reinvent themselves. On scraps of wrapping paper, crumpled napkins, or in fancy notebooks bought just for the occasion, we will engage in the annual collective ritual of listing the ways that we will, this year, be better.

And yet, by some estimates, as many as 80% of people fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions by February. Only 8% of people stick with them the entire year. Given this less than stellar track record, it is worth asking, what would we do if we were serious? What would we do differently if we really did want to stick to our resolutions for more than a few weeks?

Psychologists who study self-control have advice about how best to stick to our goals. The worst approaches involve what they call “response modulation”—otherwise known as white-knuckling it as you stare down temptation. Good old will power.

The ancient Greeks knew that this was a terrible strategy, as evidenced by their myths. As Odysseus approached the Sirens, whose songs would lure men to their deaths, he plugged the ears of his crew and had himself bound to the mast of his ship.

Odysseus knew that confronting temptation without a plan would fail sooner or later. Instead, he adopted a strategy that present-day psychologists call “situation change.” This is, according to a review of 102 studies, the best strategy for exerting self-control. Rather than exposing ourselves to temptations and hoping we possess the willpower to resist, it is better to avoid confronting them in the first place.

The Lord’s Prayer asks God not to lead us into temptation. Situation change takes matters into our own hands. Dieters remove all the sugary foods from their kitchens. Recovering doom scrollers delete the social media apps from their phones. Aspiring writers block off time for writing on their calendars just as if it was an important meeting during which they must not be disturbed.

Just as importantly, situation change involves paying close attention to our social circumstances. The people around us and the groups we belong to have a substantial influence on behavior—influence that can be leveraged to help achieve our goals

There is one exception to our lists of unfulfilled resolutions, one area in which we have been successful: writing more. When we embarked on writing our first book together a few years ago, we thought carefully about how to structure our social environments to propel us through what could otherwise become a dreary trudge of 300 pages. We set weekly meetings, blocking off time to write together. We met in cafés to argue over stories, studies, and turns of phrase. Working together created both social accountability and social support.

More generally, we leveraged the power of groups by joining writing groups where we set goals together and meet each month. Groups help people achieve their goals by setting social norms and creating a sense of accountability. In our case, we have joined writing groups in which we set goals together with other people. Really together. Each member writes their goals in a shared document and reads them aloud each meeting to make it transparent that all of us are constantly prioritizing our writing.

Knowing that other people expect us to stick to our goals helps us make writing a priority when other distractions or temptations appear. But new research by David Kalkstein, Cayce Hook, and colleagues suggests that norms don’t simply change behavior because people conform in an effort to please others. Rather, norms may limit the behavioral options that even come to mind.

Drawing on one of their evocative examples, imagine that you’re at dinner with a coworker. With your diet in mind, you are finishing the meal with a small espresso, while they indulge in a delectable slice of cake. As you ruefully sip your drink, what are the chances you reach across and help yourself to a spoonful of their dessert? What are the odds that the idea of doing so even comes to mind? Near zero in both cases (at least in our experience).

Everything changes, of course, if your colleague provides you the option. “This is far too much for me; would you like to share?” Immediately, you confront a self-control challenge you didn’t face before: stick to your diet or indulge?

Putting this idea to the test, the researchers tested whether creating a norm against using technology (phones and laptops) in class would help university students be less tempted to engage in counterproductive multitasking while listening to lectures. In one version of a course, the teacher showed students evidence that multitasking reduces learning and established a social norm of not using technology.

In another version of the same course, the teacher provided the same evidence and had students create a personal plan for not using technology in class.

Norms trumped personal plans.

On average, students whose resolutions not to use technology were independent reported spending 24% of their time in class multitasking. For students in the course with a clear social norm against tech, it was a mere 10! Importantly, people who were in a group with healthier social norms also reported fewer urges to engage with their phone or computer during class. Tempting thoughts came less frequently to mind. The need for sheer willpower was lessened.

So when you create a New Year’s Resolution this year consider joining a group. Whether you are at home or at work, think more deeply about how your good intentions can be supported (or undermined) by groups and their norms. You might form a running group with friends, start a book club with coworkers, join a local environmental organization, or attend regular meditation meet-ups.

Of course, there is also the possibility that some of the groups you belong to have norms that contradict the goal you have set for yourself. If you want to reduce your alcohol consumption, for instance, you might need to avoid hanging out with your drinking buddies. Spend a little less time in their company and more in the presence of people whose own behaviors align with your intentions.

This is how our groups can help us become the best version of ourselves.

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