Why it’s hard to keep your New Year’s resolution

Relevant research and conventional wisdom alike suggest that, despite their irresistible perennial tug on our collective conscience, New Year’s resolutions generally have about the staying power of champagne bubbles. Pledged to ourselves and one another in the short, dark days of late December, sorrowfully few survive to see the crocuses come up. Some studies suggest 20 percent or so live that long. Frankly, I’m surprised the numbers are that good.

The lamentable life expectancy of resolutions should come as no surprise. The standard approach to them is all about the transient inspiration of cultural momentum, and not at all about preparation. Resolutions are a quintessential “ready or not, here we go!” kind of enterprise.

In contrast, the science of sustainable behavior change tips convincingly toward “don’t go until ready.” Among the better known constructs in this field is the “stages of change,” an integral part of the transtheoretical model of behavior modification. This model was developed in the context of smoking cessation research, but has subsequently been applied to all of the prevailing challenges of behavior change, from weight loss to safe sex to exercise to domestic violence, and proven robust across all categories.

Essentially, the model tells us that at any given time with regard to any given behavior, some of us are ready for change, some of us are set to go, and some of us are already well on our way. But, importantly, many of us are decidedly unready. If we just go in spite of it all, we are apt to fail — and that seems an unfortunate way to start a new year.

It is unnecessary as well. If the goal of resolutions is to invent lasting improvements in our lives, we might consider the insight of Thomas Edison, who famously gave the recipe of his own genius for invention as “one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” If even genius is more about sweating through the details of preparation than inspiration, how much more so the pledge to change our comparatively pedestrian ways.

My recommendations on the topic therefore begin with reinventing the nature of your resolution. Don’t resolve to go. Resolve to get ready.

There are two key elements in successfully confronting a challenging behavior change, such as losing weight sustainably — a pledge that reliably sits at or very near the top of popular resolution lists. One, willpower, gets plenty of attention. In my opinion, too much attention — because where there’s a will, there may or may not be a way. A will for change in the absence of an accessible way to get there from here is a formula for frustration and bitter disappointment.

The way to our goal can be paved for us by our culture, but generally that’s not the case. The very reason we need to “resolve” to change in the first place is because getting where we want to go — lean and healthy; safe and prudent; kind and considerate; tobacco free — is hard. Resolutions are necessary because they involve departing from the path of lesser resistance and defying the prevailing currents in our lives, not going with the flow.

And so, much depends on our own aptitude. What most resolutions require that gets far too little consideration is “skillpower.” If, for instance, you resolve to become a pilot in 2014, the venture will inevitably involve flying lessons so you can acquire the relevant skill set. Settling into the cockpit with no knowledge of aviation and only willpower as your copilot would be flighty, to say the least.

Less altitude may be involved with more common resolutions, but the fall from aspiration is as predictable. The emphasis we all place on personal responsibility tends to vary across a spectrum, but we can all acknowledge that succeeding at anything is partly a product of knowing how. The Spider-Man movies gave us the adage, “With great power comes great responsibility.” A reasonable corollary is that to take responsibility for the changes we want to make in our lives, we may need to be empowered.

Having reimagined the nature of your resolution, I suggest this sequence of steps. Assess your motivation and readiness with a “decision balance.” On a piece of paper, make a grid with “change / don’t change” across the top, and “pros / cons” along the side. With your particular resolution in mind, fill out the grid, and then do the math. If the pros of change and the cons of the status quo have greater weight, the balance tips toward “go.” But if not, you need to cultivate your will — or pick a different resolution — before you are likely to find a way forward.

If change does make sense, take the time to plan for it. If, for instance, you want to lose weight, do you know how to identify and choose more nutritious and less caloric foods that will help you fill up so you can slim down without going hungry? Do you know how to cook with them? Do you know the best snack choices? Do you know how to choose the best dishes on a restaurant menu? Do you know how to fit physical activity into your hectic daily routine? Do you know how to engage your family in the same endeavor, so that in unity you will find strength? Will can make you want these things, but only skill can make you good at them. Resolve to get skillful — with the help of a health care professional, friend, coach, counselor, book, website, program or combination of these. If your goals relate to losing weight, finding better health or both, my latest book may be useful to you.

Resolutions, born of a “ready or not, let’s go” mentality, invite failure. So reinvent your resolutions and make them more likely to succeed. Resolve to get ready, and go only when you are.

With the requisite combination of willpower and skillpower, you and your resolutions are far more likely to combine way with will, stay the course, and be here to welcome spring. Between here and there, you have my best wishes for your success and a wonderful year. If all goes well, perhaps you might send me a crocus.

David L. Katz is the founding director, Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. He is the author of Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well.

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