The Science of Sticking to New Year Resolutions

By Anupum Pant

Wait a minute. Have you started listing your New Year resolutions four days before the New Year starts? If you are planning on sticking to New Year resolutions this year, simple science says, you probably shouldn’t be making lists now.

Let’s admit it, many among us have made the same resolution for the last 5 years. We are not alone. More than 90% of the people do not succeed in achieving their New year resolutions. But, does that mean there is no point in pledging for something good?
No! of course not. If it is good, it is always good to go ahead. Paying attention to simple science can help you this year.

Hyperbolic Discounting

The first thing to know before applying science to help you stick with your resolutions is the term Hyperbolic Discounting. It states that we show a preference for something that arrives sooner than later. To give you an example, think of these 2 separate choices:

1. You are trying to eat better to lose weight. Salad is good for you but you don’t like it.
Now, I offer you only one of these two things to eat – a box of fries or a bowl of healthy green salad. The catch is that you know that you have to decide now, but you will have to actually eat it on the same day, next month. In this case most people choose, healthy green salad for next month.

2. In a second test, can you guess what happens if I offer you the same choice again and you have to eat it right after you choose and not the next month? You are more likely to say french fries.

Hyperbolic Discounting: We show a preference for something that arrives sooner rather than later. In the second choice, the satisfaction from eating french fries comes instantly. While the good results of a healthy diet is a culmination of your efforts over several months. So, you tend to choose the food item that gives you quick satisfaction. In other words, we need instant gratification.

The best way to illustrate this would be this TED talk where Silvia Barcellos talks about The Marshmallow Test and why we want instant gratification.

Real world example: If you are trying to quit smoking, you must have decided to add it to your list of resolutions for the next year. Later, when your friends ask you out for a New Year’s party, there is a great chance that you’ve already entered 2014 and are still smoking away packs. Technically, you have missed on the first day.
You chose instant satisfaction – partying – over your long-term goal of quitting cigarettes.

To avoid this

To avoid this, it is suggested that you either make lists just before you are going to start doing it. In this case, do it [making list] on Jan 31, 2359 hours. But you’ll be partying at that time. So, you could make lists now and start doing it right away.

In short, do not procrastinate. Things that are far, look smaller from where you stand. Bring your goals nearer to see how big they actually are.

Read more at [You are Not So Smart]

Some other common advice to keep in mind

  • Have just one or two very specific resolutions.
  • Pledge to include tiny habits in your everyday lives. Don’t have huge goals.
  • Use triggers.
  • Communicate your end goals to the greatest number of people you can in your social circle.
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