We could spend all year living healthier, more productive lives, so why do we only decide to make the change at the start of the year? Why do we all make (and break) New Year resolutions?
Many of us will start 2020 with resolutions – 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 he. The answer tells us something important about the psychology of motivation, and about what popular theories of self-control miss out.
Today is a very cool and rainy day. I am lazy. Not on the mood to do anything. It's even difficult to write this column. But my motivation gets bigger and bigger while writing. New Year resolutions? Many writers discussed about this topic already. Here are my two cents in.
While celebrating during New Year's night, my family and friends found out, that what we want isn't really straightforward. 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. Believe me – I heard it many times from my students.
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 the 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 on 1st 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.
Let me ask you now, my dear readers: How about your 2020 resolutions!
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