Home > Personal Finance > The Science Behind Keeping Your New Year’s Resolutions

Comments 0 Comments

January 1 brings a lot of sobering realities. Most of us will wake up with a literal or metaphorical headache. We’ll likely be heavier, facing bigger credit card bills, and headed away from our families and back to the grind. We’ll probably be facing the worst weather of the year and the darkest days, too. Not a great time to make a major life change.

But about half of us will resolve to do so anyway. And, according to a lot of anecdotal research, half of those folks will have given up on their resolutions by Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and a majority will abandon ship by Valentine’s Day.

This year, be the exception rather than the rule. There are some simple steps you can take to really increase your chances for success. (Simple, the word is so important, it bears repeating.) Here’s some research about why resolutions fail so often, and what simple changes you can make to make your promises stick instead.

1. Vague vs. Specific

These lessons apply to losing weight or saving money, but they can really apply to any life habit you want to change in 2016. In fact, I hope none of you resolve to lose weight or save money, because those are vague, grandiose goals and you will almost certainly fail. Instead, you should pick small, specific goals and stick to them. As professional athletes often say, take care of the little things and the results will take care of themselves.

Vow to generally spend less this year and you’ll likely fail (I promise). Vow to bring a lunch two days each week and save money on your food bill, and you’ll have a fighting chance. Vow to eat a piece of fruit instead of a bagel for breakfast every other day, and you’ll really be getting somewhere.

2. Big vs. Small

Sure, it’s great to decide you’ll run a marathon, and for some people that works. TV shows are made about those people. Normal humans have to start with something much more modest, like walking around the block after work three times per week. But there’s great news on this front. Much of the health benefits from exercise occur within the first few minutes. Simply getting started is where it’s at.

New York Times writer Gretchen Reynolds published a book in 2012 called The First 20 Minutes explaining the science behind this phenomenon, but here’s what you need to know: Put your sneakers by the door and make sure you walk or run around the block every day. Buy some really warm yoga pants if that helps. And forget about the marathon, just make it to Valentine’s Day. A cascade of good things will happen to your body. Ariane de Bonvoisin writes in her book The First 30 Days that it takes 30 days to replace a bad habit with a good one (but many people fail at around two weeks). That’s why it’s so important to make it to mid-February.

3. Perfect vs. Sympathetic

A day will come when you choose happy hour over running. Or you don’t pack your lunch. Or you eat pizza. Don’t despair! Just put your sneakers on tomorrow. The real reason most resolutions fail is because people quit when they stumble. They say “the heck with it,” technically, releasing the goal. You won’t be perfect. Plan for that. And just plan for the day after your failure to pick right back up where you left off.

In our book The Plateau Effect, Hugh Thompson and I wrote a lot about the creeping disease of perfectionism hitting the Western World. Perfectionism is the enemy of change, and you should see it as that. Gretchen Rubin, author of Better than Before and The Happiness Project, makes the point that people who treat themselves (and others) with sympathy have an easier time picking themselves up after a fall. People who beat themselves up lose energy and give up more often. Be nice.

4. Failure vs. Plateau

Speaking of The Plateau Effect, there’s a biological reason many diets fail around the two-week mark — because that’s when diets seem to stop working. In the book, we analyzed weight loss of participants in a TV show and found average weight loss always plummets during week two. That’s natural, success followed by stuck. It happens in every life adventure, be it starting a business, saving money, learning to play piano, exercising or studying a new language. Beginner’s luck followed by sophomore slump. Plateaus often make people despair (“why skip dessert when I’m not losing weight anyway?”) because they are misunderstood. Prepare for plateaus, and you’ll be able to keep going when it seems like you aren’t going anywhere.

5. Bias vs. Reality

University of Colorado researcher Margaret Campbell described an important phenomenon in a paper published this year in the Journal of Consumer Research called “When One Step Forward Seems Larger Than One Step Back.” She called it “progress bias.” Basically, people trying to save money or lose weight give themselves too much credit when they do the right thing and not enough “demerits” when they slip up. For example, Campbell and fellow author Caleb Warren of Texas A&M measured people’s reactions to either spending or saving money. Turns out, they tended to overestimate how much they saved and underestimate how much they spent (which is why that January credit card bill is nearly always such a surprise).

But, good news: All sorts of new technologies make measuring progress easier. Fitness apps let you log in your eating habits; budgeting apps follow day-to-day spending. Tools, like Credit.com’s free credit report summary, let you track your credit score each month. Rubin calls this the “Strategy of Monitoring.” Reality can sometimes be harsh, but it will keep you on track.

6. Alone vs. Together

Everyone knows it’s easier to stick with exercise when you have a workout buddy. Peer pressure really does work. It’s much easier to wake up in the morning when hitting the snooze button will let down a friend. But if you don’t have a workout buddy, you can replicate some of that positive peer pressure in lots of ways. Tell friends your goals (“If I don’t bring my lunch on Monday, yell at me!”) Make promises (small ones) on social media. Sign up for an online class or program designed to coach you through change. (Gretchen Rubin offers 21 days of 21 tips to change a life habit; I have a 30-day Getting Unstuck Challenge; you can find plenty of other similar programs online.)

7. Denial vs. Reward

Both these things are important as you try to make a life change. Positive reinforcement is lovely, but in reality, there will come a day when you will have to say no to the new TV you don’t really need or the cupcake you definitely don’t need. However, plenty of research suggests that the carrot is more important than the stick when sticking to a goal. My favorite involves Joe Kable’s brain studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He finds that people who are good at imagining positive future outcomes – say, they can imagine that new car smell in the future when deciding to save money today, or they can imagine how great it will feel to look good in that bathing suit – make better choices about food, money, drugs, even relationships.

So practice imagining. It’s cold. It’s dark. It’s dreary. Go easy on yourself. Think about spring. Give yourself cheat days. Buy yourself new workout gear or running shoes. Do whatever it takes to get you walking around the block or saving a few dollars every day. Valentine’s will be here before you know it. If your body and your bank account are a just little healthier by then, you’ll be doing great. And way ahead of the pack.

More Money-Saving Reads:

Image: Oko_SwanOmurphy

 

Comments on articles and responses to those comments are not provided or commissioned by a bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by a bank advertiser. It is not a bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Please note that our comments are moderated, so it may take a little time before you see them on the page. Thanks for your patience.

Certain credit cards and other financial products mentioned in this and other articles on Credit.com News & Advice may also be offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com will be compensated if our users apply for and ultimately sign up for any of these cards or products. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment.

Hello, Reader!

Thanks for checking out Credit.com. We hope you find the site and the journalism we produce useful. We wanted to take some time to tell you a bit about ourselves.

Our People

The Credit.com editorial team is staffed by a team of editors and reporters, each with many years of financial reporting experience. We’ve worked for places like the New York Times, American Banker, Frontline, TheStreet.com, Business Insider, ABC News, NBC News, CNBC and many others. We also employ a few freelancers and more than 50 contributors (these are typically subject matter experts from the worlds of finance, academia, politics, business and elsewhere).

Our Reporting

We take great pains to ensure that the articles, video and graphics you see on Credit.com are thoroughly reported and fact-checked. Each story is read by two separate editors, and we adhere to the highest editorial standards. We’re not perfect, however, and if you see something that you think is wrong, please email us at editorial team [at] credit [dot] com,

The Credit.com editorial team is committed to providing our readers and viewers with sound, well-reported and understandable information designed to inform and empower. We won’t tell you what to do. We will, however, do our best to explain the consequences of various actions, thereby arming you with the information you need to make decisions that are in your best interests. We also write about things relating to money and finance we think are interesting and want to share.

In addition to appearing on Credit.com, our articles are syndicated to dozens of other news sites. We have more than 100 partners, including MSN, ABC News, CBS News, Yahoo, Marketwatch, Scripps, Money Magazine and many others. This network operates similarly to the Associated Press or Reuters, except we focus almost exclusively on issues relating to personal finance. These are not advertorial or paid placements, rather we provide these articles to our partners in most cases for free. These relationships create more awareness of Credit.com in general and they result in more traffic to us as well.

Our Business Model

Credit.com’s journalism is largely supported by an e-commerce business model. Rather than rely on revenue from display ad impressions, Credit.com maintains a financial marketplace separate from its editorial pages. When someone navigates to those pages, and applies for a credit card, for example, Credit.com will get paid what is essentially a finder’s fee if that person ends up getting the card. That doesn’t mean, however, that our editorial decisions are informed by the products available in our marketplace. The editorial team chooses what to write about and how to write about it independently of the decisions and priorities of the business side of the company. In fact, we maintain a strict and important firewall between the editorial and business departments. Our mission as journalists is to serve the reader, not the advertiser. In that sense, we are no different from any other news organization that is supported by ad revenue.

Visitors to Credit.com are also able to register for a free Credit.com account, which gives them access to a tool called The Credit Report Card. This tool provides users with two free credit scores and a breakdown of the information in their Experian credit report, updated twice monthly. Again, this tool is entirely free, and we mention that frequently in our articles, because we think that it’s a good thing for users to have access to data like this. Separate from its educational value, there is also a business angle to the Credit Report Card. Registered users can be matched with products and services for which they are most likely to qualify. In other words, if you register and you find that your credit is less than stellar, Credit.com won’t recommend a high-end platinum credit card that requires an excellent credit score You’d likely get rejected, and that’s no good for you or Credit.com. You’d be no closer to getting a product you need, there’d be a wasted inquiry on your credit report, and Credit.com wouldn’t get paid. These are essentially what are commonly referred to as "targeted ads" in the world of the Internet. Despite all of this, however, even if you never apply for any product, the Credit Report Card will remain free, and none of this will impact how the editorial team reports on credit and credit scores.

Our Owners

Credit.com is owned by Progrexion Holdings Inc. which is the owner and administrator of a number of business related to credit and credit repair, including CreditRepair.com, and eFolks. In addition, Progrexion also provides services to Lexington Law Firm as a third party provider. Despite being owned by Progrexion, it is not the role of the Credit.com editorial team to advocate the use of the company’s other services. In articles, reporters may mention credit repair as an option, for example, but we’ll also be sure to note the various alternatives to that service. Furthermore, you may see ads for credit repair services on Credit.com, but the editorial team isn’t responsible for the creation or implementation of those ads, anymore than reporters for the New York Times or Washington Post are responsible for the ads on their sites.

Your Stories

Lastly, much of what we do is informed by our own experiences as well as the experiences of our readers. We want to tell your stories if you’re interested in sharing them. Please email us at story ideas [at] credit [dot] com with ideas or visit us on Facebook or Twitter.

Thanks for stopping by.

- The Credit.com Editorial Team