The Fallacy of New Year’s Resolutions

Happy New Year everyone!

Did you make a resolution or two to do things different this year? I suspect there are already more than a few readers who have measured 2010 by the number of resolutions that have already fallen. If so, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re probably quite normal.

New year’s resolutions don’t work in changing behaviour. In fact,  research reported by Jonah Leherer at the the Wall Street Journal’s health blog points to the problems with these annual rituals and points out that, not only do some resolutions fail to inspire change, they may just impair change. Among the research that Leherer cites is work from Roy Baumeister and his lab at Florida State University that has looked at willpower and cognition. The article reports:

In a 2007 experiment, Prof. Baumeister and his colleagues found that students who fasted for three hours and then had to perform a variety of self-control tasks, such as focusing on a boring video or suppressing negative stereotypes, had significantly lower glucose levels than students who didn’t have to exert self-control. Willpower, in other words, requires real energy.

Anyone who’s tried to quit smoking, exercise more, or suppress any kind of unhelpful thought knows that its hard work. The article cites another study that looked at the role of cognition and attention and diet:

In another experiment, Mr. Baumeister and his colleagues gave students an arduous attention task—they had to watch a boring video while ignoring words at the bottom of the screen—before asking them to drink a glass of lemonade. Half of the students got lemonade with real sugar, while the other half got a drink with Splenda. On a series of subsequent tests of self-control, the group given fake sugar performed consistently worse. The scientists argue that their lack of discipline was caused by a lack of energy, which hampered the performance of the prefrontal cortex.

Since the most popular New Year’s resolution is weight loss, it’s important to be aware that starving the brain of calories—even for just a few hours—can impact behavior. Skipping meals makes it significantly harder to summon up the strength to, say, quit cigarettes. Even moderation must be done in moderation.

When we talk of energy balance in public health we typically refer to issues related to diet and obesity, balancing energy output with energy input from calories. The above research has less to do with this directly and more about ensuring one has the psychological energy necessary to make the changes we want happen.

I’ve discussed this before when referring to organizations. Energy is important to taking information and using it, but so is applying it in a manner that fits with how change happens and on this level much of the conventional thinking fails us. In mainstream psychology, behaviour change tends to focus first on getting the right information, rationally processing it, and then transforming it into a plan of action (goal) that has structure and clearly anticipated and expected outcomes. We place a timeline (consider the Transtheoretical Model and Stages of Change, which suggest 6 months, 3 months, and 30 days as reasonable timelines for thinking about and planning change). We might enlist friends or allies in the battle too or find a role model to follow like with Social Cognitive Theory.

All of this takes place in a very linear, planned way. Yet, that isn’t really how most people change. Robert West and others have pointed out how on issues of smoking cessation (for example), nearly half of quitters had no plan when they finally quit. Indeed, many just quit almost spontaneously. Linear, rational models of change are so prevalent because they make sense to our brain that wants to make things simple, yet change is rarely like this. I would argue that our change processes — individual, organizational or otherwise — are far more complex than this and therefore require a complex model of understanding change to fully address and support change. Maybe we need to create the mental equivalent of catalytic probes to focus the mind or perhaps we need to engage in diverse experiences to transform the way we process information to support new self-organized mental patterns.

What this looks like is something I’m planning to give much more thought to in 2010 on these pages, because on a personal level the linear ways of doing things didn’t work so well in 2009 and not for the world either. Over the next few months, this issue will be explored further on this site and I welcome readers’ thoughts on how this might look from your point of view.

The first stop on this journey will be information, which serves as the foundation for most of the models of change we adhere to and, as you’ll see, not all is what it seems to be.

Best wishes for a great start to 2010 and may the complexity you find bring with it much joy.


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