How to force yourself to fulfill your New Year's promises
How to force yourself to fulfill your New Year's promises

It's time to think about what you would like to change in yourself over the next 365 days. Maybe read more books, spend money wisely, or eat healthily. In any case, the moment is getting closer when we will make a New Year's promise to ourselves.

How to force yourself to fulfill your New Year's promises
How to force yourself to fulfill your New Year's promises

According to a survey conducted by YouGov, in 2015, 63% of people decided to start living anew. Losing weight, getting fitter, eating healthy foods are the most common New Year's promises. Another 12% wanted to finally achieve the perfect work-life balance. How many of them were really able to fulfill their promise is unknown. But based on experience, we can all start to panic.

The poll showed that 32% of respondents stopped fulfilling their own New Year's promises by the end of January. And only 10% boasted that they had never broken their oath.

What separates this victorious minority from the failed majority? Perhaps it's all about willpower? And can we use the achievements of psychology to help ourselves fulfill our vows on New Year's Eve?

New Year's promises
New Year's promises

The tradition of making New Year's promises has a long history. The Babylonians returned the borrowed items and tried to pay off their debts before the new year. The Romans took a vow to the god Janus. The potential for non-fulfillment of these vows, as we can see, has been accumulating for centuries.

Benjamin Gardner, an expert on behavior change at King's College London, says the main reason for breaking New Year's promises is that they are unrealistic:

If you don't do any exercise and vow to hit the gym five times a week for an hour and a half on New Year's Eve, chances are you're not even going to start doing it.

Another reason is that people are often not ready for change. Psychologists recently suggested that people need opportunity, ability and motivation in order to start changing themselves. Often times, people don't keep their New Year promises for very reasonable reasons. For example, due to lack of motivation.

How to choose a smart New Year's promise

Ask yourself, what would you like to change in yourself in the first place, if there were no pressure or opinions from others? This is important, because research has shown that you can change your own behavior when you are motivated by internal, not external forces.

An interesting experiment confirms this. In 1996, 128 obese people took part in a weight loss program. Those who wanted to change their weight for the sake of health regularly attended classes, lost more pounds and were able to maintain the result. But those who took part in the program on the advice of friends or relatives quickly lost their motivation.

Okay, now you're making a New Year's promise with the right motivation.

Are you able to fulfill the New Year's vow?

Many people consider willpower to be a character trait. That is, you were either born with her, or you are not given. But recent psychological research suggests that things are not so simple.

Roy Baumeister, professor at the University of Florida, says:

Willpower is like a muscle, it goes up and down, and if you exercise it gets stronger.

Baumeister's research is already a classic example. The scientist divided the volunteers into two groups. Participants were asked to eat the chocolate chip cookie first. The second group had to refrain from sweets and eat a plate of radishes instead. After that, the participants in the study solved complex problems in geometry. Those who ate the cookies took much longer to find the answer than those who ate the radishes. Apparently, willpower is a resource that we can save or use.

Subsequent trials have also shown that it is much more difficult for people to control themselves if they have made several difficult decisions before, and also with low blood sugar.

Roy Baumeister often thinks about political scandals in this vein: “I often think of politicians who turn out to be drug addicts or use the services of prostitutes. I do not justify them, but I can assume: when you make decisions all day, willpower is slowly consumed and destroyed, and in the end such people suddenly find themselves in a compromising situation."

However, the professor points out that simpler solutions also suck willpower out of us. For example, resisting the urge to eat some more of this lovely chocolate cake. Or going to the shower when you most want to sit under the covers and never crawl out from under it. All of this drains our willpower.

If your promises are more like a long list on New Year's Eve, then you are most likely doomed to fail. It is worth spending your willpower on one thing. Start with the simplest and then move on to complex and complex measures.

Baumeister argues that willpower will grow in proportion to how you accomplish your plans. Many studies show that when subjects were given small and regular self-control tasks, their willpower increased after just two weeks.

John Tierney, a Baumeister collaborator and author of willpower training, recommends adopting a few rules to help you build self-control:

  1. Create a list of targeted goals. Choose one of them. Follow it first and only then tackle the rest of the New Year's promises.
  2. Formulate the promise in a very clear, understandable and simple way. Then you can gauge how close you are to winning. If you want to do more sports, then, for example, promise to visit the gym at least three times a week.
  3. Find someone to help monitor progress. Ask a friend to follow your progress and penalize harshly for failing to keep a promise. For example, if you miss a class at the gym, you will have to pay 500 rubles. Or donating them to the wackiest invention on Kickstarter is even more powerful.

Okay, now you know how to control willpower.

Willpower alone is enough?

Even if you are a very strong and strong-willed person, there may be other obstacles on your way. You must check whether you have the opportunity to change your behavior, and if you do not see such, to understand what exactly prevents you from implementing your plan.

Peter Gollwitzer, a professor of psychology at New York University, argues that having a purpose and character is not enough to achieve a desired result. For example, if you want to train yourself to buy coffee on the way to work, then you will most likely succeed. But, as soon as you are faced with a more difficult task, you may fail.

According to the scientist, you should understand not only the goals, but also the way to achieve them. You have to imagine when, where and how you will carry out your plans.

You need to think about possible problems along the way and how to solve them.

Let's say you want to write a novel in the new year. You need to consider how you can fulfill your New Year's promise. For example, you might decide to write several pages each time your other half leaves for work or the gym. But you also need to think in advance what to do if at this very moment a friend calls and invites you to take a walk or have lunch. Gollwitzer calls this “if-then” planning: if X happens, Y will follow.

People who use this type of planning are two to three times more likely to achieve their goals. This applies to all areas of life: from losing weight to the desire to travel more.

One of the reasons this planning scheme is so effective is because it saves mental and physical energy. Once you decide what to do in the first, second and third cases, it is as if you switch to autopilot mode and develop a habit.

Of course, habits are very often the reason why people make New Year's promises at all. Habits allow us to do things without thinking, these are adaptive responses. But bad habits are a real problem because they are hard to get rid of: they exist separately from motivation. For example, the often repeated promise to eat healthy foods. One of the reasons this is difficult to achieve is because we form the habit of eating unhealthy foods as early as New Years. According to tradition, for several days in a row we will run to the refrigerator and eat up what is left after the rich table.

Can I change my habits?

Habits are formed by repeating the same behavior in response to the same stimulus.

It takes about 66 days to form a new habit.

Some behaviors are easier to develop into habits than others. For example, accustoming yourself to drinking a glass of water after breakfast is much easier than doing 50 squats a day. This suggests that you should try and choose small changes in behavior, accustom yourself to them, and only then move on towards a common goal.

To break a bad habit, you need to let go of temptation. Then you don't have to use willpower in order not to return to the wrong behavior.

For example, Molly Crockett from Oxford says that the most winning strategy is to play ahead. If you think through possible temptations in advance and remove them from your life, then there will be much less reason to break your promise.

Research shows that when you calculate your actions ahead of time, your brain activates the lobe responsible for self-control. It works even better than willpower. “If you are trying to lose weight, then it is better to completely abandon the purchase of unhealthy and fatty foods. It's much easier than sitting around looking at high-calorie foods and hoping you can resist the temptation,”says Molly Crockett.

When it comes to New Year's promises, remember that it is best to define a clear and simple framework for the task at hand. Develop them one at a time, forming good habits, and then you will achieve your goal.

This is what the experts say. But is it possible for them to realize this themselves? Gollwitzer smiles and says:

I would say yes. When I decide to make myself a New Year's promise, I smile, because I know: now I need to work out a plan for fulfilling what I promised. And then I start thinking about obstacles. In most cases, I understand that I absolutely do not need to do what I just was about to promise.

Sometimes there is a very good reason not to lose weight, not to exercise, not to get richer or more social. Perhaps - if you try to be completely honest with yourself - you really don't need it.

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