Scientific approach to New Year’s resolutions

If you’ve made a New Year’s resolution, your plot to improve yourself likely kicks off on January 1, when the hangover wears off and the quest for the “new you” begins in earnest.

But if research into habit change is any indication, only about half New Year’s resolutions are likely to come out in January, let alone last a lifetime.

As experts in positive psychology and Literature, we recommend an unconventional but more promising approach.

We call it the “resolution of the old year”.

It combines ideas from psychologists and America’s first self-improvement guru, Benjamin Franklin, who pioneered a pattern of habit change well ahead of his time.

As the “old year” approaches, you may be able to avoid the inevitable challenges that come with traditional New Year’s resolutions and achieve lasting positive changes.

A period to practice and fail

Research has highlighted two potential pitfalls with New Years resolutions.

First, if you don’t have the confidence to invest in a full-fledged endeavor, failure to achieve the goal can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Also, if you hold on to the change but perceive the progress to be too slow or inadequate, you may give up on the effort.

The resolution of the old year is different. Instead of waiting until January to start trying to change your life, you give it a try before the new year begins.

How it works?

First, identify a change you want to make in your life. Want to eat better? Move more? Save more? Now, with the days of January 1, start living your commitment. Track your progress. You might trip up and down every now and then, but here’s the thing: you’re just practicing.

If you’ve ever rehearsed for a play or performed scrums, you’ve used this kind of low-stake practice to prepare for the real thing. Such experiences give us permission to fail.

Psychologist Carol Dweck and his colleagues showed that when people see failure as the natural result of their efforts to achieve something difficult, they are more likely to persist towards the goal.

However, if people take failure as a definitive sign that they are not able, or even deserve, to succeed, failure can lead to giving up.

If you become convinced that you cannot achieve a goal, something called “learned helplessnessCan result, which means you are likely to give up the effort altogether.

Many of us have unwittingly prepared for failure with our New Year’s resolutions. On January 1, we jump straight into a new lifestyle and, unsurprisingly, slip, fall, slip again – and finally don’t. never come up.

The resolution of the old year takes the pressure off. It gives you permission to fail and even to learn from failure. You can slowly build confidence, as failures become less important, as they all occur before the official ‘start date’ of the resolution.

A gardener weeds one bed at a time

Long before he became one of America’s greatest success stories, Franklin devised a method that helped him overcome life’s inevitable failures – and might help you master your year-old resolutions.

When he was still a young man, Franklin had what he called his “daring and arduous project to achieve moral perfection.” With charming confidence, he set out to master 13 virtues, including temperance, frugality, chastity, industry, order and humility.

In a quintessentially Franklinian move, he applied a little strategy to his efforts, focusing on one virtue at a time. He likened this approach to that of a gardener who “doesn’t try to eradicate all the weeds at once, which would be beyond his reach and strength, but works on one of the beds at a time.”

In his autobiography, where he described this project in detail, Franklin did not say that he tied his project to a New Year. He also didn’t give up when he slipped once – or more than once.

“I was surprised to find myself so much more full of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them decrease, ”Franklin wrote.

Repeated failures could discourage someone enough to abandon the business altogether. But Franklin persevered – for years. For Franklin, it was all about perspective: this effort to improve was a “project” and projects take time. He made his progress visible in a book, where he recorded his slippages. A page – perhaps only a hypothetical example – shows 16 of them related to “temperance” in a single week. (Instead of marking faults, we recommend recording successes based on the work of habit expert BJ Fogg, whose research suggests celebrating wins helps change habits.)

“A better and happier man”

Many years later, Franklin admitted he was never perfect, despite all his efforts. His final assessment, however, is worth remembering:

“But, on the whole, although I never achieved the perfection that I had been so ambitious to achieve, but was far from achieving it, yet I was, by this effort, a a better and happier man than I should have been otherwise, if I had not tempted him.

Treating self-improvement as a project without a rigid schedule worked for Franklin. In fact, his plan probably helped him be extremely successful in business, science and politics. Above all, he also found immense personal satisfaction in the business: “This little device, with the blessing of God,” he wrote, was the key to “the constant bliss of his life, until his 79th year, in which this is written.”

You can enjoy the same success as Franklin if you start on your own schedule – now, in the past year – and treat self-improvement not as a goal with a start date but as an ongoing “project.” .

It might also be helpful to remember the note Franklin addressed to himself on a virtue he coincidentally called “Resolve”: “Resolve to do what you must; do what you solve without fail.


Brand Canada is Executive Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Indiana Kokomo University and Christina downey is a professor of psychology at Indiana University.


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