REUTERS/Henny Ray Abrams
Why do our New Year's resolutions never stick?
We make sweeping declarations like "This year I'm going to quit smoking" or "This year, I'm going to lose X pounds," but are miserable when we fail a few weeks into January.
The bottom line is that we're thinking about New Year's resolutions the wrong way, Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard and author of the upcoming book "Presence," told Tech Insider.
Most resolutions are overtly negative. They seek to change things that we don't like about ourselves. We make them too ambitious. And we design them as lofty goals that skip the process it takes to actually reach them.
"They're riddled with traps that work against us," Cuddy said.
It's no wonder so many of us give up so easily.
Why we fail
A few big problems usually stand in our way, Cuddy said.
For one, New Year's resolutions are usually entirely focused on outcome. If we hit even a small bump along the way, it feels like we've failed. If our resolution is to quit smoking, smoking one cigarette makes us feel like we've already failed.
Additionally, it's really hard to identify with our future selves, Cuddy said, so resolutions set far in the future can be problematic.
Hal Hershfield, professor of marketing at UCLA, has done a lot of research in this area. His experiments show that when people are instructed to think about themselves 10 years from now, their brain scans show a similar pattern as when they were instructed to think about a complete stranger.
It's difficult to imagine ourselves actually completing a goal too far in the future because we feel disconnected with our future selves.
Another problem is that New Year's resolutions are often too negative. They're focused on changing something we don't like about ourselves, Cuddy said.
Cuddy herself has struggled with bad New Year's resolutions.
She said that for years her resolution was to become a runner. In her mind, a runner was someone super self-disciplined and capable of tackling full marathons.
So in January, Cuddy would start running. She'd run a mile or two, and it was painful and slow. Every run felt like a failure compared to what she thought a "runner" could be capable of. She'd give up and quit by mid January.
The problem, Cuddy said, is that she wasn't focused on the process of reaching her goal. If you're starting from scratch, building up to a distance like a marathon takes a lot of time and incredible patience.
So instead, one day she decided to just go for one run. She didn't worry about her time, she didn't worry about pushing through side stitches, and she didn't compare herself to other runners. That helped her focus more on the process of starting to run rather than the outcome of being a runner.
She also found intrinsic motivation to run. Cuddy travels a lot, but usually doesn't have time to see or experience the country or the city she's in. If she goes on just a two mile run, she gets to see much more.
The kinds of resolutions we should be making
Cuddy has two pieces of advice when considering a New Year's resolution:
1. Focus on something you like about yourself and invest in that.
For example, Cuddy said, maybe you enjoy dancing but never thought to develop that skill. So maybe this year just sign up for dance classes and simply commit to showing up.
2. Don't focus on a noun, focus on a verb.
"Your resolution shouldn't be, 'I'm going to land a great job this year,'" Cuddy said. Focus on the steps you need to take to land that great job — like getting better at interviewing, or learning a new skill.
So if you're going to give New Year's resolutions a try, decide on those focused on growth — not outcome —and frame them in ways that you'll enjoy working toward.