Why Your Healthy New Year's Resolutions Fail

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So, if you don't mind me asking: How are your New Year's resolutions going so far?

If you're like most people who re-dedicated themselves to eating better and exercising more at the start of 2017, it's a safe bet the answer is "not so good." And the reason for this shortcoming, an expert researcher tells us, is rooted in basic human psychology.

Issuing self-improvement promises immediately makes us feel good about ourselves, but the fact is that they require no effort – and any action that will be required is delayed, sometimes for quite a while. That's a primary reason why people embrace resolutions year after year, even if the same ones are ignored annually. A second big reason is that hope is central to human nature. And despite an individual's desire to improve one's health and well-being, without better understanding what motivates us – and what type of thinking holds us back – the chances of accomplishing a particular task often are exceedingly low. 

That's the view of Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., a psychologist at Ottawa's Carleton University, who helped create the Procrastination Research Group in order "to explore how procrastination, as a breakdown in volitional action, affects our lives."

“Humans are predictably irrational,” stated Dr. Pychyl, in an interview with Popular Science. Speaking about those who become ever more dreamy as the ball drops each December 31, these hopefuls "make the intention now, but they don’t do anything. And people love that. It’s like going to buy furniture and not having to pay anything until 2019." He added that those types would typically respond, " 'Of course I can do that.' ” 

The term for this type of thinking is affective forecasting. It's when positivity in the present makes you confident that you'll be in a positive frame of mind in the future. But as often is the case, when that moment actually arrives for the resolution to be acted upon, dread and/or procrastination often replaces positivity and a new justification surfaces – specifically, why not to fulfill the promise.

Understanding human nature, and why we do what we do, can help us determine how to harness the resolution-making moments that deliver instant gratification, and use them so we can actually follow through on them later.

The key to following though, Dr. Pychyl tells us, is to condition yourself not to associate each resolution with negative thinking. For example, regarding the hope to exercise more, someone issues the resolution in the first place because they tend to avoid the activity – which is why, of course, it's viewed negatively. So to improve your chances of successfully tackling any resolution, the advice is to try to separate your emotions from the endeavor, and look at the activity dispassionately as a goal to be achieved – rather than a unpleasant task to be confronted.