The Key to Keeping Resolutions

When the clock struck twelve, we entered into the New Year, bright-eyed and eager to pursue our New Year’s resolutions. The first few hours, days, and possibly weeks are filled with absolute determination. We chant to ourselves: We will succeed this time. This year will be different. This is the year I maintain the change.

Sadly, for many of us, the determination to keep our New Year’s resolutions fades. As a result, we become disappointed in ourselves, leading to a belief that our intentions were “hopeless” and we feel we will never accomplish the goal we set. We’re often left feeling like trying is a waste of time and effort.

I believe the reason we become discouraged and, ultimately, give up on our resolutions is because we don’t recognize that “slips” are a part of human nature. Every psychological theory has to deal with that fact. If we can accept the fact that slips happen, then we can pick up and begin again. Our determination can be fueled by the idea that every day is a new day to restart our resolution.

Let’s focus on the “slips” for a bit.

In order to understand how Freudians would understand the slips, we have to understand that for them, our behavior is the result of a battle between our id (our pleasure center), our superego (our conscience), and our ego (the mediator who tries to balance those two extremes). Our ego constantly seeks to make resolutions to please both the id and superego. Our id wants pleasure, so it seeks to eliminate our resolutions; our superego wants to minimize, if not eliminate pleasure, so it is the source of our guilt when we break a resolution. When we break a New Year’s resolution (or any goal), we need to defend our ego; we have to justify why our ego could not maintain a proper balance and protect our ego from the “failure” to control the id and expose us to the criticism of our superego (either our own conscience or the criticism we think we will receive from others).

For Freudians, we use ego defense mechanisms to protect us from feeling too badly about our inability to maintain our willpower and about ourselves. Freudians would likely see these slips as regressions, or returns to earlier behaviors that we exhibited in the past that were appropriate for a different age or time or place. For example, a regression may be that a person handles impulses more like a child than the adult he or she is. Freud had another term, retrogression, to refer to a return to less appropriate behaviors that we ourselves never did in the past, but that we are going to try out now. So, if we eat that cake, rather than having one piece, we just binge on it like a child eating out of the cookie jar. If we break our vow to be patient with our loved ones, rather than just yelling, we have a total temper tantrum and, like a child, feel exhausted afterwards. If we want to succeed with our resolutions, we have to embrace our “id” – our childish pleasure center – and recognize that sometimes we will behave that way. We also have to recognize that the superego – our adult conscience – will chastise us and that, eventually, our ego – the balance between the two extremes – will encourage us to return to our path. It will restore our willpower.

For a Humanist, the cause of our “slip” is the incongruity between our real and ideal selves. If the ideal self is very different from who we are at the moment, then our journey to our ideal self is fraught with concern that while we try to get there, we run the risk of losing those we love. We worry that our loved ones will find out that we are not as great as we want to be and stop loving us because who we are falls so short. So, if we vow to lose weight, and then eat that cookie, we think to ourselves, “I should not have done that”, then feel guilty, and then prepare ourselves for the “fact” that others will think less of us because not only “should” we be thinner, but also more determined to get there. Again, if we break our vow to be patient with our loved ones, not only are we certain that our relationship will fail, but also should fail because we are not worthy of being loved. If we want to succeed, we have to recognize that managing this fear takes a considerable amount of energy—energy that is better placed in keeping our resolution, in maintaining our willpower, than in protecting us from the fear of the loss of love.

For cognitive theorists, the cause of our “slip” is our irrational thoughts. Irrational thoughts are characterized by extremes, such as “always” and “never”, and cause us to exaggerate the potential consequences of our irrational beliefs. So, if we say, “I always give up” or “I never follow through”, then the slip becomes a “fact” about who we are and about our permanent limitations. So, if we eat that cookie, it is not because we felt like having one at the moment, it is because we always give up and we never have any willpower. If we break our vow to be patient, it is because we never have patience, we never stay calm, we always yell. If we want to succeed, we need to learn to avoid those extreme words and concentrate on the moment – we ate a cookie, we yelled – we can do something different/better/more rational in the next challenging moment. We are not rational or irrational; rather, we are often rational and sometimes irrational.

If we are Behaviorists, we see the “slip” as a spontaneous recovery of an extinguished response. That sounds like a mouthful, but it is a simple and elegant explanation of the setbacks we all experience in our resolutions. For Behaviorists, extinction is when we “stop” responding because a reward is withheld (for example, we do not eat the cookie because cookies are not available). The word stop is in quotes because, for Behaviorists, extinguished responses are never really gone – they just appear to be gone because the response drops to a very, very low level that it simply looks like it is gone. Spontaneous recovery tells us that an extinguished response will return – even if a reward is not offered. For example, we can continuously avoid eating cookies; we can stop ourselves from eating them at the holidays, at parties, at restaurants. When we are in our own home and someone we live with eats cookies in front of us, sooner or later, we will not only want cookies, but we will have them. Once we do and we have a doughy reward, it becomes even more difficult to extinguish our response. Similarly, we can continuously avoid yelling; we can hold our tongue at work, at home, with our friends, but eventually, something will trigger our yelling response; it will spontaneously recover. If it results in our getting something we want (our significant other does what we “asked”, for example), then the yelling will continue to increase and make extinction even more difficult for us. If we want to succeed, Behaviorists would tell us to reduce our behaviors, rather than trying to eliminate them entirely. From the outset of our resolution, they would tell us to manage our willpower by allowing ourselves to have a cookie once a week, or admitting to ourselves that we will yell sometimes. This helps to avoid the extinction–spontaneous recovery cycle and helps us to maintain greater control over our behavior.

When we talk about maintaining our changes, maintaining our determination, we need to recognize that willpower is a valuable resource that must be used effectively. It is not something we have or don’t have. Willpower is something we have, we use up, and we need to replenish. Recent studies reveal thatif we use our willpower to avoid that donut for breakfast, or to avoid answering our boss with attitude, or avoid telling a friend what is bothering us because we know that they have enough of their own “stuff” to deal with, then we are using up our daily allotment of willpower. That is why for so many people, the resolutions made or remade are broken toward the end of the day – there simply isn’t enough willpower left. So, it might be helpful to track where we are using it up and how we might be able to reallocate it for more effective use overall.

I, for one, occasionally enjoy a piece of crumb cake or a jelly donut for breakfast.

If you are interested in the topic, you might enjoy reading the following American Psychological Association fact sheets:

Harnessing Willpower to Meet Your Goals

What You Need to Know About Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self Control

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14 thoughts on “The Key to Keeping Resolutions

  1. I loved your blog! That was day 7 of my annual January 1st diet. I was starting to get crabby and cranky from all the clean eating. You reminded me its not about perfection but improvement-it’s a journey not a race!! So I had a little dessert and guess what? Nothing horrible happened! I’m still on track with a renewed spirit!

  2. This is awesome!!! I like what you said in paragraph #9 “When we talk about maintaining our changes, maintaining our determination, we need to recognize that willpower is a valuable resource that must be used effectively. It is not something we have or don’t have”. I believe that we have to make a determination of what we want because if we want to accomplish a goal or if we set a new year’s resolution, then we have to be determined to comply that. Sometimes it is not easy to achieve a goal, but it all depends on how serious we take it and how much effort we put in it.

    On the other hand, I like the cognitive theory because of the “ALWAYS and NEVER” Those irrational thoughts are always in us because we look for an excuse when we want something. In the cognitive theory they use a good example which is the cookie, but with me is candy. I love candy and I know that is not healthy, but a lot of times I have some candies, specially chocolates and I eat it not because of having or wanting it, but because of not having that willpower of saying not. Today I bought a package of 6 Apple stick and they were delicious. I did not want to eat more than one, but still I ate 2/1, then I felt guilty because that has too much sugar, so that tells me of giving up. I have to be more determined in what I want because I have to decide for what is more convenient for me.

    If I cake for breakfast, now I will not feel guilty … Well a little bit. I just have to learn to be rational or not rational, but work on the goals that fail.

  3. I really can relate to the Humanist’s point of view on keeping resolutions. My new year’s resolution was to do 10000 steps, drink 2000 ml of water (four regular water bottles), and burn 2000 calories daily. I use a Fitbit which is a fitness device that helps you stay motivated while tracking activity, exercise, weight, and sleep. I was really determined to do my New Year’s resolution everyday till school began on the nineteenth of January. I did not have time to do 10000 steps a day or burn 2000 calories and sometimes fell short. It got me really angry because my ideal self was very hard to accomplish. Even though I did not need to lose weight, I wanted to keep up with a goal and fulfill it. I dealt with this anger by making myself understand that maybe some days will not be consistent and there will be some bumps on the road. I understood that to keep resolutions, maintain willpower and protect myself from the fear of the loss of love by not accomplishing my resolution, I have to be able to manage this fear. You’re correct when you said this fear takes a considerable amount of energy.

  4. From this article, no one can deny the fact that “slips are part of human nature”. Most people go to church on every 31st December to make new year resolutions. some say I will quit smoking, join gym, eat healthy, learn new skills and go to school on time. But almost all of them start giving up and go back to their past before January ends. This happens because most people lack the real power to their lists of resolutions. So I think it is easier to keep one resolution rather than the whole list. moreover, the article, ‘mutual dependence’ clearly argues that we need people to help us with our resolutions because we cannot do everything by ourselves.Finally, we all have ‘will power’ so we have to use it avoid doing things we don’t want to and believe in ourselves.

  5. I enjoyed the comparisons between Freudian, cognitive theorists, humanists and behaviorists. They offer different insight into what the key issues could be. More importantly, they provide windows into areas we don’t typically think of. For example, whenever I fail at something I’ve been trying I think in cognitive theory terms. I tell myself that it’s a cycle, and that I always do this. I would never have thought about the Freudian perspective of regression or the need and ability to replenish willpower. I feel these different perspectives can arm us with the insight and tools we need to overcome our challenges. I myself will be focusing on managing my “id” and replenishing my willpower when it is weak.

  6. Wow after reading your blog I can say that I can relate a little to all theory’s. I always “slip” but I try not to beat myself over it. Although it can be hard at times I always try to remember that no one is perfect. I always start out full throttle and then one day I might not have time to do my normal routine or I might just really want that cookie. I think achieving a goal is all about determination and time management and it can be hard, you just must remember you are human and enjoy life. Don’t get overworked because you had that cookie that a week ago, you promised yourself you wouldn’t have. Did you enjoy it? YES! So move on from it.
    Although I can relate to all theory’s I find myself falling into the cognitive theory the most. I tend to exaggerate and “always” and “never” seem to be words I use a lot. Eventually I realize that I am going overboard with my excuses and come back down to earth but I feel like if I can realize this I’m doing just fine. Now where did I hide those cookies????

  7. This blog really hit close to home for me. My girlfriend as well as I am very guilty at using the should word to compare ourselves as a unit to others based on non factual items such as things seen on Facebook, or society as a whole. For example there are times we both say, we should be in a house right now, we should have more money saved, we should a better trained dog…the list goes on and on. I also think the list is even larger for perfectionist like us who always want to do well at everything. The juggling act and feeling like we are failing in certain aspects but using the should term discredits all of the good we have accomplished and continue to accomplish. When these should arise I will be using the need/want method to give a different perspective that will not make me feel like a failure but more of a driven person i.e.: I need to own a house.. why? Because I want a safe and large area to eventually raise a family (not because I need to feel like I am keeping up with the Jones’s)

  8. I really like what you say about willpower and how we only have so much of it each day and how we need to replenish it. I couldn’t agree with you more because I can be good all day and eat healthy and when I feel the most weakness would be at night when I probably used up all my willpower. This makes so much sense to me and now I know I have to dig a little deeper to stay on course.

  9. So even though I recognize that “slips” are a part of human nature, I still beat myself up for having them. My only resolution this year (as it has been for the past 2 years as well) was to lose weight, and I have yet to succeed. I can totally relate with the Humanist cause of my “slip”. I vow to lose weight, then not work out, then feel guilty, then feel like I “should” be more determined to get there. It’s like a never-ending cycle for me. And because this cycle goes on & on, it wears me out mentally & physically. So no, I am not using my daily allotment of willpower effectively. I really need to work on dispersing it more evenly because by the end of the day I’m exhausted.

  10. Keep new year resolution has also been difficult for me. I also always start out by create a good plan and execute it few a few weeks. Then something always happens and I revert back to my old ways. I think this happens because I lose focus and my priorities change. What I think would work is to have constant reminders to help me stay focus and create small attainable goals.

  11. I relate so much to the humanist version of the “Slip” because I am one who always tries to do something then when i “slip” i get all bent out of shape because i know i shouldn’t have done that. For example when I am on a diet and trying to cut back eating I will play hockey at night and tell myself you will not eat when you get home. Whats the first thing i do ? Open the refrigerator and see whats in there to eat i obviously have zero self control , “Slip” and huff down some food or ice cream or cookies. Then I am in the shower saying to myself . Why did i do that? etc. So i can relate to that but also I am one who will say I just burn it off tomorrow at the gym or i wont eat breakfast tomorrow. That is the humanist in me.

  12. I truly enjoyed this article as I can totally relate to it. I have always wondered why I feel guilty when I do not achieve a goal I set for myself. I need to understand that “slips” are normal and I should not feel guilty, I should just continue to reach my goals. This article also helped me to understand why I always want to start a diet on Mondays as opposed to any other day of the week. I guess that’s my ego trying to find balance between my “id” which is telling me that “dieting is boring” and my superego telling me “you need to make healthier food choices”.

  13. I love your blogs and the amount of thought that you put in them. I am guilty of not sticking to my New Year’s Resolution every…single….year… I always swear that it’s a new year, new me and here it is, July and I think I’ve restarted my year and resolution about 45 times at this point. I love the way you broke down why we think the way we do from various perspectives because it allows us to see which one may apply to us and use it to try and turn the situation around. I know it’s not too late and if we don’t succeed one day, we should pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and try again, but sometimes it’s so much easier said than done.

    Reading this gave me hope that I can do it and you reminded me that I’m only human and I will fall off track. I just need to remember that these things will happen and it doesn’t mean I’ve failed. Hopefully I will still feel this way and remember this the next time I’m watching TV and I reach for the Oreos!!

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