January 7, 2011 10:00 pm

Why won’t New Year’s resolutions stick?

The Shrink

It’s that time of year again. Much of our fresh resolve is already beginning to waver. Yet there is no shortage of advice out there on how to make resolutions that stick. It tends to boil down to a few rules of thumb – breaking ambitious aims into more manageable chunks, setting goals that are specific and realistic, telling people about them, giving ourselves small rewards.

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This makes a lot of sense. So why is it that, despite having easy access to this kind of advice, most of us continue to struggle with and routinely abandon our resolutions? In my experience, if we’ve set a goal and find ourselves backsliding, the main question is whether we need to find more effective strategies or accept we’ve just made the wrong choice.

First look at the goal itself. Do you genuinely value it? Or is there a mismatch between what you actually want and what you think you should want?

You can begin to shed light on this by rating the importance of the change on a scale of 0-10. This will give you some useful information: we might well value, say, having a slimmer waist, but simply not enough to be prepared to go to the gym every day.

If you conclude that the goal really does matter, either in itself or as a means to something else you value, then you can move on to reviewing your strategies. Where is the undermining pull towards the habitual? We resort to making resolutions primarily when we find a change hard in some way. We must discover that counter-motivation and look for practical ways to defuse it. Never underestimate the power of habit.

But instead of focusing solely on goals as things to be achieved, we could also think more about values to live by. For example, it may be better to be guided by the values of being loving, or eating healthily, than by the goals of getting married or losing weight. If we focus on how we want to live our lives from day to day we might find that specific results follow.

The Sage

One of the more useful habits philosophy instils is the practice of questioning questions. For instance, one of the best replies to “Why can’t I stick to my resolutions?” is often “Why on earth would you want to?”

Self-help – and even many forms of therapy – usually treats a person’s desires as givens, not to be challenged. Whatever a person wants – to lose weight, to feel less anxious, to save a relationship – is taken to be a valid end, and efforts are then concentrated on the means of achieving it. Heaven forfend that we might suggest that the destination isn’t worth the journey.

I suspect that a failure to consider just this possibility lies behind a large number of abandoned resolutions. We resolve to change out of a desire for a kind of renewal or self-improvement. We feel we are not all we could be, or that life is stuck in some kind of rut. Next year, we say, it will be different.

However, in the absence of any truly deep thought about what really would make life better, we just leap on one of any number of things that our culture values and rewards: eating more healthily, developing our “spiritual side”, making progress professionally, spending more time with our families.

All of these are things which may indeed be worthwhile, but unless we know why they matter to us personally, there is little motivation to change, and little satisfaction with the changes that come.

Such resolutions are therefore like sticking plasters, off-the-shelf strips of value used to cover up our existential dissatisfactions. It is much harder work to really spend time – weeks, months, even years – trying to decide what would actually make life significantly better, not just a little more pleasant. If we could do that, we would find it much easier to act on any resolutions that followed.

As Plato said, no one who was really convinced a course of action was right would ever choose to do anything else. If he was correct, then weakness of resolution could be a sign of weakness of conviction.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in south-west England

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