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Why You Won't Keep Your New Year's Resolutions

06/01/2015 23:16 GMT | Updated 07/03/2015 10:59 GMT

So it's that time of year again when we clamber out of the festive hangover and give ourselves a stern talking to.

"No more cake," we cry! "I'm dry in January," we protest! "This year, I WILL get the job I want," we whisper, as Philip Larkin might say, at our own distress.

But alongside that is the familiar set of articles about whether or not New Year's Resolutions actually work. Do they help us to change our lives and our habits, or do they simply give us new ways to feel bad about ourselves? I've never been much of a fan of them myself - I think they encourage us to ignore the reality of our nature in favour of a learned image of how we think we are meant to be - but for some people they seem to work.

So do they? Are resolutions any use? The answer, according to the psychology of motivation at least, seems to be a resounding "well, sometimes...."

Motivation matters

Motivation comes from the Latin for "to move", and is basically the reason why some tasks feel easier than others. It is very different to a decision to act. We can have all the good intentions we like, but without motivation, we will struggle to take action. We can use willpower - consciously forcing ourselves to act against our motivations - to overcome this, but this takes mental energy, meaning firstly that we are draining ourselves of energy that would be better spent on the task at hand, and secondly that we soon run out of energy and, metaphorically at least, reach for the cake again.

According to various research studies, including particularly those of Gagné, Deci and Kehr, motivation comes from a combination of factors:

  1. External incentives, like money, praise or fear of failure (extrinsic motivation).
  2. Internal drivers, like ethical values, attention to relationships, pride in your actions (intrinsic motivations).
  3. Ability to succeed, particularly whether success is in your control and you have the resources and skills to accomplish the task.

Any one of these alone, or even two of these, is not enough to make something feel easy to do. You can force yourself, but it's tiring. If you want to do something to the best of your ability, or enjoy yourself while you do it, you need to get these three factors in place.

Boosting motivation

If you want to boost your motivation for a task, the first step is to figure out which of these factors is missing. There are different tools that work for boosting the different factors, so if you don't know why you're demotivated, you may well end up using the wrong tool to fix the problem. This is often the reason we find it hard to get ourselves motivated, but fortunately it's an easy thing to fix.

There are three basic sets of tools available to you:

  • Set goals. If your problem is a lack of external incentives, then you may procrastinate, putting off the task till later. You can overcome this by setting your own incentives. The process of goal-setting can help you reflect on how your actions relate to your values, and completing a goal can boost autonomy and self-confidence. Bargaining with yourself and setting your own rewards can also be particularly useful for getting boring tasks done.
  • Internalise the task. If you don't believe in what you're doing, you may work to rule, doing the bare minimum. To overcome this, you need to find something in the task that relates to your life and the things you care about. Writing down a few thoughts on how the task relates to your life ambitions, the people you care about, the things you believe in, can help you feel more attached to it. Feeling that you have chosen to do something helps too. Even minor choices can make you feel more attached to a task, so if you can't change the task, change how you'll do it and make it your own.
  • Increase your abilities. If you feel success is beyond you, you will tend to give up - even on something close to your heart. Practising an activity can make you feel more capable, and seeing improvements in your ability can give you an intrinsic sense of mastery and accomplishment. This is about confidence too: you might have all the resources you need to succeed, but you also need to believe you do.

So can resolutions help?

Resolutions essentially come into the category of goal-setting. We often make them for things that we have been putting off, such as learning a language or quitting smoking. Quite often they are things for which we have a long-term incentive, like our health or our career prospects, but no reason to do it right now. In these situations, resolutions can help, giving us a commitment to do it now rather than later and reducing procrastination.

Internal resolutions don't necessarily help though: they often work better if we can link them to external rewards, or in extreme cases to punishments. Public pledges like sponsored runs and bargains with friends give us a reason outside ourselves to do something now. This is why sponsors and support communities are useful in addiction therapy, and why we reward ourselves with cake when we've had a good day at the gym.

Where resolutions won't help though is for things which we already have incentives, but we don't believe in the task, or we feel it is beyond us. In those situations, drop the resolutions and goal-setting: it will only make you feel worse. Instead, focus on building your skills and your confidence, and in really thinking deeply about why you care about doing this task. If you really don't believe in it, then don't do it. If you are so set on doing it, then chances are there will be a reason in there somewhere, and once you've found it, you may find it is easier than you thought. Always set realistic resolutions too: many smaller goals can help you get to a big goal. If you set yourself something you know in your heart you can't achieve, all the passion and incentives in the world won't make it feel easy.

Above all, try not to be too hard on yourself. Our minds are delicate things and don't always do exactly what we want them to do. And that's fine. Pick your battles, try to find things you know work for you, and don't compare yourself to other people with different values and different skillsets. If you spend all your time forcing yourself to do the impossible, your reward will usually be a pile of new year stress.

Make a resolution to be kind to your mind this year, and to pay attention to what it needs, and you may be surprised at how easy it is to make progress.

References

Gagne, M. & Deci, E. L. (2005) Self-determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26, 331-362.

Kehr, H. M. (2004) Integrating implicit motives, explicit motives, and perceived abilities: The compensatory model of work motivation and volition. Academy of Management Review, 29, 479-499.

Hulleman, C.S. & Harackiewicz, J.M. (1999). Promoting interest and performance in high school science classes. Science 326 (5958), 1410-1412.