I do remember making New Year’s resolutions in the past. It seemed like the thing to do. But I haven’t bothered in many years. In the past, they often seemed doomed to failure. I mean really, don’t I need something more than just a calendar day to make me decide and then carry out a particular resolution? It makes me wonder: are New Year’s resolutions good for your mental health?
In 1989, Norcross, Ratzin, and Payne attempted to identify variables that predict successful self-change with New Year’s resolutions. The study followed individuals for six months and found that readiness to change and feelings of self-efficacy (how effective you think you are) were connected with success. The successful “resolvers” also demonstrated less self-blame and wishful thinking than unsuccessful resolvers.
Polivy and Herman (2002) analyzed the psychology that makes people attempt to change themselves, fail, and attempt to change themselves again. They describe it as a cycle of failure and renewed effort or a “false hope syndrome”. One of the challenges is that many of the desired changes are unrealistic, such as the speed it will happen at and how easy it will be.
Okay, so assuming that a person made a resolution that is manageable, what does it take to make it stick? Willpower is one of the biggest challenges. You have to have the willpower to make and maintain any sort of change. I always find it is how I do in the tough times that affects my ability to maintain any sort of commitment. When I was training for a long distance ski event, it wasn’t whether I could make it out to ski with friends in nice weather but whether I went out in miserable weather by myself that determined success. It was a good thing too as the conditions on the day of the event were challenging to say the least. One person described the trail of skiers as a death march because of how difficult it was.
So, one thing I never knew about willpower is that some people view it as a limited resource. You run out of it as you use it. Fortunately, other research indicates that it is actually whether or not you believe you can run out of willpower that determines whether you will run out of willpower (Job, Dweck, & Walton, 2010).
The other nice thing to know is that you can improve your willpower or self-control. Repeated exercises of self-control can improve your willpower over time. This tends to be small tasks that take a lot of self-control to carry out. In other words, practicing tasks with no external motivation for support will help improve self-control. I have seen people consciously try to open doors or use their mouse with their non-dominant hand as an example.
New Year’s resolutions don’t have to be negative experiences. But they also can’t be isolated. If you need to lose a lot of weight, don’t make your New Year’s resolution to lose 100 pounds by March. If you want to exercise more, don’t start by going to the gym three times a week if you weren’t going at all before. And believe that you have the willpower to do it. If you don’t, work on improving your willpower through small tasks before you take on that resolution.