Guest blog: Why New Year revolutions beat resolutions – Ed Owen, head of programme content, IDM

New Year resolutions are not effective at changing your behaviour, and there are sound reasons, explained by Behavioural Economics, for this. Try a revolution instead according to the IDM’s Head of programme content, Ed Owen. .

New Year resolutions are not remotely new. Ancient civilisations like the Romans and Babylonians would make promises to their gods for the New Year.

These might have been donations, promises or even sacrifices.

Today’s resolutions are not so dramatic. It could be to keep a diary, start a fitness regime, take ballroom dancing classes, or find a new career.

Resolutions usually focus on improving your life in some way.

The problem is that the majority of resolutions fail. In fact, the majority of resolutions fail alarmingly quickly, most of them are dead less than a fortnight into the New Year.

According to fitness app Strava, most resolutions have been broken by 12 January.

There is a sound psychological reason for this, an important component of Behavioural Economics approaches to decision-making, known as cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is when the mind has to consider two contradictory things and has to pivot to one side or another to satisfy that contradiction.

For example, let’s assume you diet. But, every once in a while, you have a sneaky bar of chocolate. What then? Is it an aberration? Are you still dieting? How does your mind reconcile dieting with eating chocolate?

For most people, this is where cognitive dissonance kicks in. Most likely, the mind will decide that the chocolate isn’t ‘typical’ behaviour. You might say to yourself ‘I’m a dieter and that chocolate was a one-off and really doesn’t count’.

Cognitive dissonance is the way you justify yourself to yourself.

But the mind is a flexible thing. This rule still applies even if someone ‘diets’, but eats chocolate pretty much every day and makes little effort to watch what they eat. Cognitive dissonance allows the mind to satisfy this contradiction by creating a loophole. In this case, again your mind tells you that you are a dieter, so that chocolate didn’t count.

What has all this got to do with New Year resolutions you ask?

This loophole, the cognitive dissonance, is crucial. It is the voice in your head that asks ‘what kind of person am I?’ in a given situation.

Let’s assume that for your New Year resolution, you plan to get fit and go jogging every day.

You won’t succeed until that voice in your head accepts that you are the kind of person that goes jogging every day.

For a regular jogger, tramping up and down a freezing wet street in the winter half-light is just something you do. It’s no problem. For the rest of us, it’s an insane investment in time and energy at some ungodly hour and for what?

Around 12 January you will probably say to yourself ‘I deserve a day off from this’ and that’s it. Resolution over.

The key is, unfortunately, persistence. Keep going until that voice in your head accepts that you are the kind of person who goes jogging in the freezing wet every morning or evening. Then you’re away.

Dr Richard Wiseman, occasional magician and Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, studied 3,000 people planning resolutions in 2007. People had low expectations of success, with just over half (52%) saying they expected to be successful. This turned out to be wildly optimistic.

Only 12% achieved their resolution goals.

Wiseman says it’s possible to increase your chances of a successful resolution in two ways:

  • Plan what you want to achieve by setting realistic goals and waypoints
  • Tell others your plans, as your social group is likely to encourage you

Be practical. If you want to jog your way to fitness, then set aside specific times and dates to jog and plan your life around them. Wiseman has put together a short questionnaireto help you tweak your plans and increase your chances of success.

There is an alternative, which is to make drastic changes to your life.

Cognitive dissonance will again kick in and you will become that new person because you will be living that life. Whether it’s moving house, finding a new job or smaller changes like how you commute to work, your behaviour will lead your attitude.

This is why revolutions, like learning new skills to explore new opportunities, rather than resolutions can be a more effective way to help to shape your New Year and your new career. And your life. Why not start with a deeper dive into Behavioural Economics?

 

To find out more, visit the IDM’s website.

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