Humans are notoriously adept at finding justifications for avoiding undesirable tasks or activities, and New Year’s resolutions are no different.
While a significant majority feel compelled to set goals for the coming year that seem easily manageable at the time, come the beginning of February (or even earlier), most will have fallen off the wagon.
This is often because the resolutions that we set are based on delayed gratification, or long-term benefit, which the human brain struggles to preference over immediate satisfaction. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had to choose between waking up at 6am to exercise and having an extra hour sleep – and if we’re honest, the lure of sleeping in is a difficult force to overcome…
Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal defines willpower as “the ability to do what matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of you doesn’t want to” (TED blog, 8 January 2014). We exercise willpower when we force ourselves out of bed to go for a jog, and the ability to experience and acknowledge the discomfort of pursuing a goal while simultaneously visualising the benefits of achieving it is what facilitates success.
Re-engineering the process of arriving at a resolution can also be useful in increasing the likelihood of sticking to it. We often set goals based on aspects of ourselves that we’re critical of, like “I need to lose 5 kilograms” or “I’m so messy – this year I’m going to be more tidy”. However, goals set because we would be grateful to ourselves for achieving them are more likely to be realised. This may include a previously cherished hobby that fell by the wayside once children came along, or another activity that provides an opportunity to nourish your sense of self.
While pursuing resolutions can be challenging – the benefits far outweigh the short-lived discomfort we experience while exercising willpower.