Jan. 1 might be resolution day, but Jan. 15 is quitters’ day. The second Friday of January is typically when we fall off whatever wagon we were on, leaving us content to wallow in the dust and watch the wagon roll on without us. At least that is according to data gathered by Strava, a fitness app.
That could be “good news” to many of us because we used to have a vague notion that 80% of New Year’s resolutions are abandoned by the second week of February. This “fact” is referred to widely, but just try to find the source. It apparently was a study decades ago by a researcher at the University of Minnesota.
That study was likely survey-based, and people do what people do: lie about their failures. But cold, hard data from more than 800 million user-logged activities in Strava reveal that we fail far sooner. (Look, it was a tough 2020, we’ll take our good news where we can find it.)
So, are we really failing our resolutions, or are our resolutions failing us?
What Are Resolutions?
Why do so many of us do this to ourselves every year? We are continuing our process of promises made and (not) kept. More than 4,000 years ago, Babylonians promised the gods on New Year’s that they would pay their debts and be generally virtuous. Now we make promises to ourselves. In either case, it is easy to break those promises. Those failures start a shame cycle that tends to keep a body on the couch.
When we make resolutions, we are looking for control and redemption, according to Dennis Buttimer of Piedmont Healthcare in Georgia.
“I think most people want a second chance to improve the quality of their lives,” Buttimer wrote. “The New Year offers a blank slate — an opportunity to get things right. When we set New Year’s resolutions, we are utilizing a very important concept called self-efficacy, which means that by virtue of aspiring to a goal and following through on it, I have a sense of control over what’s happening in my life.”
Shame is what holds us back. This is especially true for people reared by hypercritical, belittling parents. Self-efficacy is the mechanism to regain our control. It is all about the perception of the self.
Does this sound familiar? “I am just not the kind of person who gets up and exercises in the morning.” Or “I always quit a month after I start a workout program.” Or “Do I still have some Oreos left in the kitchen?”
It is almost a relief when we fail in these cases, because we revert to our comfy status quo. We get a dopamine rush when we start a new thing. Then we get another one when we return to the comfortable thing. “Just Do It” just does not do it in the long run.
Here is how we can get off the shame cycle and grab the levers of self-efficacy, according to Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, psychoanalyst and management scholar.
What’s the name of the shame? What is it that causes us to bury our face in our hands? Is it gaining back five of the seven pounds that we lost? It helps us to understand where this came from. It might have been a parent or a sibling that loved to point out how we were fat or unsightly.
“Being able to discover the origins of shame-like experiences will set the stage of having greater control over your life as you become attuned to what triggers these shame reactions,” Kets de Vries wrote in the Harvard Business Review.
The next step is to shut that person right the heck up.
Why listen to that jerk? When that voice tells you that you are just a failure, treat it as you would any other jerk. That thought is not about you, but about something that someone else conditioned in you.
“When you’re feeling shame, ask yourself: Would I talk to a friend the way I’m talking to myself right now?” Kets de Vries asked.
What about reframing that narrative? Talk to yourself as if you were encouraging a friend. Remember the goals you have achieved, and get back at it.
“Engaging in these corrective emotional experiences can help you improve your sense of self-esteem, increase your feelings of worthiness and belonging, foster greater self-acceptance, and reduce unhealthy reactions to shame, such as withdrawal and counterattack,” Kets de Vries wrote.
The most important factor in predicting success was self-efficacy — the belief in one’s ability to get the job done. That likely means that you have spent some time thinking about and planning how to achieve your resolution, and also whether your resolution is realistic.”
— The Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, Cornell University
How Do We Keep Our Resolutions?
With the right frame of mind, the body is more likely to follow. Here are some next steps.
State The Goal And The Why
Just like in sales, it helps to know the value of the activity if you are going to buy it. If the goal is to lose weight, what is the value of doing it? Maybe the benefit is to fit into a bathing suit that used to fit. The value is we like the way our significant other sees us in that suit or those trunks. Think about that day when whatever it is will fit and we step out to the beach, poolside or wherever. That helps when you are hitting the treadmill in week five of your program.
Also, align your goals and your environment. If your fitness plan depends on your getting in the car and driving to a gym several miles away, it might be better to realign the plan. Maybe a pushup routine followed by running up and down the stairs for 10 minutes in the morning is perhaps more achievable goal to attain and build on.
If the goal is to be more mindful of spending, imagine whatever it is you want from that. Is it to pay for a vacation out of short-term savings rather than run up a credit card bill? When you make that short-term sacrifice, imagine the place you are planning to go. That is a happy hit of dopamine.
Break It Down
To make the journey, start walking. If you plan to lose 50 pounds, don’t think about losing 50 pounds. Think about five pounds this month. A responsible weight loss is one to two pounds a week, according to the Centers for Disease Control. So, five pounds a month is the low end. Break it down further, and think about one or two pounds this week.
The sub-goals are important at the beginning of any venture, according to research from Szu-chi Huang, associate professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
“When you are just starting a pursuit, feeling reassured that it’s actually doable is important, and achieving a sub-goal increases that sense of attainability,” Huang said, adding that the long view is important later. “At that point, to avoid coasting and becoming distracted, you need to focus on that final goal to see value in your actions.”
If it is the financial example, focus on the couple hundred dollars saved per pay period or per commission — not the $2,000 that you want to spend on vacation.
Get Back Up
This is where the magic is. The only way we fail is when we say we fail. If we fall off the wagon, get on the next one the following day.
When we were toddlers learning to walk, our parents did not give up on us when we fell down. They assumed we would walk some day and stuck with it. So if we assume we will achieve our goal, it’s just a matter of when, not if.
If we find ourselves wallowing in the dust, go back to steps one and two. What are we saying to ourselves? What would a friend say to us? Then start again.
There is a reason that Alcoholics Anonymous’ credo is one day at a time. Thinking about a lifetime of maintaining sobriety is overwhelming, but we can abstain today and not worry about abstaining tomorrow.
We can always remember that today, not Jan. 1, is resolution day. Every day can end better than it started. And just maybe, 2021 will end at least a little better than it started.
Happy New Day.