By Klaus Döring
We could spend all year living healthier, more productive lives, so why do we only decide to make the change at the start of EVERY year? Why do we all make (and break) New Year resolutions?
Many of us will start 2024 with resolutions too: to get fit, learn a new skill, eat differently. If we really want to do these things, why did we wait until an arbitrary date which marks nothing more important than a timekeeping convention? British psychologist Tom Stafford asked this. And not only him. The answer tells us something important about the psychology of motivation, and about what popular theories of self-control miss out.
At bedtime you might want to get up early and go for a run, but when your alarm goes off you find you actually want a lie-in. When exam day comes around you might want to be the kind of person who spent the afternoons studying, but on each of those afternoons you instead wanted to hang out with your friends on social networking.
You could see these contradictions as failures of our self-control: impulses for temporary pleasures manage to somehow override our longer-term interests. One fashionable theory of self-control, proposed by Roy Baumeister at Florida State University, is the ‘ego-depletion’ account. This theory states that self-control is like a muscle. This means you can exhaust it in the short-term – meaning that every temptation you resist makes it more likely that you’ll yield to the next temptation, even if it is a temptation to do something entirely different.
A corollary of the ‘like a muscle’ theory is that in the long term, you can strengthen your willpower with practice. So, for example, Baumeister found that people who were assigned two weeks of trying to keep their back straight whenever possible showed improved willpower when asked back into the lab.
But, and more importantly, that theory doesn’t give an explanation why we wait for New Year’s Day to begin exerting our self-control. If your willpower is a muscle, you should start building it up as soon as possible, rather than wait for an arbitrary date.
Another explanation may answer these questions, although it isn’t as fashionable as ego-depletion. George Ainslie’s book ‘Breakdown of Will’ puts forward a theory of self and self-control which uses game theory to explain why we have trouble with our impulses, and why our attempts to control them take the form they do. The virgin page of a new calendar marks a clean break between the old and new you – a psychological boundary that may help you keep your resolutions.
And, so to speak with Tom Stafford again, Ainslie gives us an answer to why our resolutions start always on 1st of January. The date is completely arbitrary, but it provides a clean line between our old and new selves. The practical upshot of the theory is that if you make a resolution, you should formulate it so that at every point in time it is absolutely clear whether you are sticking to it or not. The clear lines are arbitrary, but they help the truce between our competing interests hold.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a proverb or aphorism. An alternative form is “Hell is full of good meanings, but heaven is full of good works.
Good luck with your 2024 resolutions! But the most important thing for all of us is to stay healthy.