We are starting off 2015 with a guest post from our esteemed colleague, Ryan Mekota, Psy. D. about why, psychologically, it is so difficult for us mere mortals to be successful with our resolutions. It is a little science-y but what else did you expect from a doctor? The message is understandable and hopefully you will find it helpful when looking to make any type of change a lifestyle behavior. Enjoy….
Every year, millions of us inevitably make promises to ourselves or others for the New Year. We all have certain personal quirks or behavior patterns that we would like to change, and celebrating the New Year is a perfect opportunity to turn over a new leaf, reinvent ourselves, or simply rectify a lingering bad habit. However, did you know that only about half of people who make resolutions will maintain them through the month of January, and less than 20% will last 2 years4? So why is it so difficult? Why do New Year’s Resolutions fail so often?
The likelihood that we will carry out something as lofty as resolving to engage in a regular fitness regimen is actually not nearly as simple as a “yes” or “no” commitment. In fact, 80% of people fail to meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity3. Many psychological and cognitive variables come into play, most with sterile jargon names such as intention-behavior relation, perceived behavioral control, durability and impact of attitudes, temporal stability of intention, and anticipated regret. So it’s clearly more complex than we might have thought. There is a lot to ask yourself in order to take an accurate inventory and ensure that your resolution won’t fade. Bear with me, it will be worth it!
All of the aforementioned phenomena involved in making a major behavior change indicate that a true and lasting resolution is not done flippantly. Perhaps that should be the first recommendation: take an honest inventory of how committed you are to making any resolution a lasting behavior change. There is a strong connection between one’s desire for carrying out a behavior and the likelihood that it will last. However, researchers have found that intention in and of itself actually only accounts for approximately 30% of all that is involved in maintaining a behavior change5. Another concept that comes into play is the extent to which an individual believes he or she has control over making a change. If you don’t perceive yourself to be able to determine whether or not you can carve out the time to hit the gym on a regular basis, eventually that desire for behavior change will erode until it evaporates into the same old patterns that existed pre-resolution. The point being, commit to the change wholeheartedly and make a plan for success.
And that brings me to the next concepts: temporal stability and attitudes. An attitude can be considered strong if it is both durable and has impact6. If you fully embrace the long-term requirement and the slow laborious process of creating a new fitness habit beginning in 2015, then you have a robust and temporally stable attitude that is more likely to stand the test of time. Individuals who have true conviction and give themselves to the process of change are less likely to alter their behavioral patterns if new and challenging information presents2. For example, this might occur when failing to meet expected weight loss or body fat change targets. This stunning realization provides us with two options: 1. Give up and make an excuse about why you failed, or 2. Dig deeper for understanding, welcome the struggle, and resolve to find a way forward.
In order to positively influence that behavior change and improve the resilience of your hardened resolution, also consider maximizing what is called anticipated regret1. There will be times when you do not want to exercise and will search for an excuse to skip out. However, that is a poisonous thought. Instead maximize anticipated regret by telling yourself that you’ve committed to exercise, and if you don’t you will feel guilty for not exercising, you’ll be more likely to carry out the action despite feeling lethargic or whatever other barrier their might be. Nobody always wants to grind at the gym, but most successful fitness enthusiasts consider the regret they will feel if they forego the activity, perhaps providing the necessary nudge.
Not all parameters of volitional behavior change necessarily come from within, either. Another concept that plays a role in the creation of lasting behavior change is something called subjective norm. If your answer to the question “Do most people around me think I should [insert resolution here] tomorrow?” is “No” or “Not really” then that will adversely impact your capacity for maintaining that resolution. It’s important to surround ourselves by people who withhold similar values and are supportive of us, otherwise making that change will be more difficult and we’ll be fighting an uphill battle all the way.
Let’s say you’ve now whole-heartedly accepted that keeping to your resolution is going to be difficult, and after weighing your values you see how important and necessary it is in your life. You have also committed to maintain personal accountability by not giving into cutting corners – maximizing anticipated regret – and you’ve also got the support around you to help. What’s left? How about “the nudge?”
I’m sure you’ve been accosted up and down with messages telling you that “eating better is good” or “exercise is good,” and you’ve accepted all that on some level. Well, the nudge is about setting up your environment and the external messages we receive to coincide with that goal of eating better or exercising more7. Nudges are everywhere – the food industry has been doing this for ages by slathering on any given food label that something is “40% less fat” instead of “still exceeds 100% recommended daily value of fat but is a bunch less than before.” We rapidly judge something as better or worse based on a simple concrete message and seldom do we truly exert the cognitive effort to think critically about every single decision we make. Set yourself up for success by installing nudges into your environment that only allow for good decisions. Instead of putting out a bowl of cookies, put out a bowl of nuts or fruit. Plan your meals for the week. Keep your gym bag ready to go and in your car for easy access instead of in the closet. Put up a few motivational messages or posters around the house that are congruent with your goals.
I hope you now have a better understanding about why we fail at our resolutions and what you can do to successfully implement a new behavior in your life.
Cheers to a healthier, happier, and more fulfilling New Year!
Ryan Mekota, Psy.D. & the Results Fitness Staff
1 Abraham, C. & Sheeran, P. (2004). Deciding to exercise: The role of anticipated regret. British Journal of Health Psychology, 9, 269-278.
2 Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 179-211.
3 Center for Disease Control (2013). One in five adults meet overall physical activity guidelines. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2013/p0502-physical-activity.html
4 Norcross, J.C. & Vangarelli, D.J. (1989). The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attempts. Journal of Substance Abuse, 1, 127-134.
5 Sheeran, P. (2002). Intention-behavior relations: A conceptual and empirical review. In W. Stroebe & M. Hewstone (Eds.), European review of social psychology (Vol. 12, pp. 1-36). Chichester, UK: Wiley.
6 Sheeran, P. & Abraham, C. (2003). Mediator of moderators: Temporal stability of intention and the intention-behavior relationship. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 205-215.