I rarely partake in New Year’s resolutions because waiting til some arbitrary date to change your life seems inefficient and cult-like. But if you’re among the optimists who believe New Year’s resolutions are a healthy first step to self-improvement or if you’re motivated by the crippling shame of not following through on something you vowed to change in January, this is for you.
HOW TO PICK A RESOLUTION
New Year’s resolutions offer a glimpse into our own self-image because they’re essentially an admission of guilt. Last year I ate too much or last year I didn’t call my Mum enough or last year I hated myself for approximately eleven and a half months and that was in no way beneficial to my happiness. Whatever. Resolutions start with the acknowledgment that you are, in fact, a fallible human being with normal human faults, fears and moments of whackness and despite what your parents may have told you for the majority of your life, you are not perfect. Nobody walking this Earth’s surface is (thanks Jay-Z).
If you find this depressing, don’t think of it as an exercise in self-hate, but rather, the acknowledgment that parts of your life have yet to reach their full potential (like your bank account homey). Draw excitement from this realization. After, look at your naked body in the mirror and ruthlessly identify your flaws. Do so with no remorse. Now do this metaphorically. Reflect your emotional double chins, spiritual acne and fiscal hemorrhoids with the metaphoric mirror in your mind (no, don’t). When you’ve stared into the abyss of your own soul long enough to identify the behavioural/physical flaws that disgust you most, you’re ready to progress to step two.
If you’re unable to find fault in yourself you might find inspiration in the below infographic. It details the top ten New Year’s resolutions of 2011 (drink less alcohol, get a better education, get a better job, get fit, lose weight, manage debt/save money, reduce stress, quit smoking, take a vacation, volunteer to help others.) You could also add “be less cliche” to the top of your list.
CARROTS VS STICKS
Now that you’ve found that thing you wanted to change about your life note that New Year’s resolutions fall into two camps, suppression of a negative behaviour or encouragement of a positive one. The distinction is important because both resolution types require different goals and incentives. Whereas something like “quit smoking” is a race to zero and easy to quantify, something like “increase fitness” is ambiguous and always capable of improvement. This 2007 study of New Year’s resolutions suggests tackling just one issue alone and employing the S.M.A.R.T. method of goal setting – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time based. In short, ensure your goal is achievable, find a way to quantify progress, break behavioural changes into smaller parts and create and enforce time restrictions.
The study also favours a carrot over stick (incentive over punishment) approach to motivation. If you’re trying to quit smoking for example, drink a shot for every cigarette you don’t smoke instead of punishing yourself for every cigarette you do. That sentence doesn’t even make sense but you get the idea. Unsurprisingly, people are more willing to reward than punish themselves (except these guys).
If all else fails use the greatest motivation of all – avoidance of shame at all costs – and publicly declare your New Year’s resolution to friends and family. Then, when your resolution proves to be far more difficult than you had initially imagined, it’s harder to sheepishly regress and pretend like nothing happened.
I CAN’T GET NO SATISFACTION
I’ll now throw to the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Nora Volkow, who recently said this about New Year’s resolutions and addiction: “We all as creatures are hard-wired that way, to give greater value to an immediate reward as opposed to something that’s delayed,”. This, my friends, is what it all comes down to – short-term gratification vs. long term happiness. Do I eat the chocolate bar now and satisfy my short term urges or choose the spinach because my long term health is more important? When your resolution becomes hard to stick to, think of the actual trade off that’s occurring, it’s easy to forget and hard to imagine a future benefit you’ve yet to receive.
So yeah, behavioural change is essentially an exercise in delayed satisfaction which sucks for you now but is totally awesome for the fitter/richer/happier future you. Imagine that future you sailing aboard a yacht of success while classically beautiful strangers fawn over your superior money saving ability. You might own a pet tiger or possess an encyclopedic knowledge of wine as well. This is your endpoint. This is why you made a New Year’s resolution in the first place. This is why you read this half serious article til the end. This is the dream. And if you should happen to fail that dream as 78% of resolution makers invariably do, take comfort in the fact that a failed New Year’s resolution requires more self-awareness than no resolution at all. The others are just delusional.