It's not news to most people that the vast majority of New Year's resolutions fail. Many of us respond to this reality by vowing to try harder. "I'll really buckle down this year," we tell ourselves, or we swear that "This time, I'm really going to give it my all."
And then what happens? Usually, despite your determination to throw all of your willpower into your goals, you still fall short. Is it just that you lack the backbone to accomplish your goals? Nope, suggests a fascinating post by Jeff Wise on the Cut blog. The problem is your approach.
Science shows that the harder you try at a New Year's resolution, the more likely you'll be to fail. The counterintuitive truth is that the easier you make things, the more likely you'll be to succeed.
Willpower is a terrible way to reach your goals
How can this be so? The short answer is that willpower is a terrible way to accomplish change. While the science on the subject is still a bit muddled, it's clear from both research and personal experience that relying on self-control to force yourself to meet your goals is pretty much doomed to long-term failure.
Here, for instance, is the money sentence from a recent paper that looked at whether college students were able to stick with their stated goals over a semester: "Contrary to conventional wisdom, self-control was unimportant in accomplishing one's goals." And this isn't the only research that came to this conclusion. "Better self-control is, paradoxically, associated with less inhibition of immediately available temptation," another pair of psychologists concluded.
3 better alternatives
So what should you do instead of white knuckling through temptation and berating yourself to do better? Rather than assuming that keeping a resolution has to be hard work, science shows that the people who actually meet their goals do so by making things as easy for themselves as possible. Wise breaks down how to do this into three simple suggestions:
Avoid temptation. Want to quit smoking or eat fewer donuts? Don't rely on willpower to overcome temptation. Instead, avoid temptation. You'll do a lot better if you change your route so you don't go past the Krispy Kreme than if you expect to be able to see that deliciousness every day and never go through the door.
Swap behaviors. Of course, as Wise points out, it's not always possible to avoid running into the things you're trying to stay away from. In addition to steering clear of naughtiness, you need another strategy: Plan ahead what you'll do when faced with temptation, and work to make these reactions as automatic as possible. "Maybe you've set a rule for yourself that every time you find yourself wanting to eat something sweet, you have a piece of fruit instead, or if you're tempted to have a cigarette, you chew a piece of gum," writes Wise.
Start small and build momentum. Straining to keep your promises to yourself isn't a sign you're doing well, it's a sign you don't understand how to achieve difficult goals. Instead of sweating and struggling, "carve out small, manageable areas of good behavior and gradually build trust in your ability to hold fast," Wise recommends. "First, find a rule that will bring you a little bit closer to your self-control goal, but will be so easy that you have no doubt you'll be able to stick to it. Then, each day keep track of whether you've done it or not. That's all." Don't worry about the big goal. Instead, focus on the incremental process.
Check out Wise's complete post for more specifics on how he's personally put this program to use to learn languages, eat healthier, and achieve a variety of other goals. It can work for whatever change you want to make in life, he insists. All you have to do is try way less hard and make things easier for yourself. It sounds like some seriously doable advice.