Every year the month of January witnesses heated discussions on the efficacy of New Year resolutions. Should we make them? (Short answer: Yes, we love them.) And more importantly: Do they work? (Short answer: No, they don’t.)
That’s right. Research shows that over 92% New Year resolutions fail. Pundits offer several reasons for this staggeringly high failure rate: One, most resolutions are too ambitious to sustain over the long term. Also, many resolutions are too vague to implement. Finally, and quite simply, old habits die hard. Therefore it is folly to believe that a new year somehow makes you a different person. The net result is there to see by the third week of January, when most people rapidly revert to their pre-resolution behaviors.
That is a pity because the dawn of a new year does seem like a good excuse to bring positive changes into your life. And if you do manage to change your habits, the rewards can be immense.
So, how do we improve the chances of our New Year resolutions sticking? Make them less demanding? Make them more specific? Show a greater resolve? Well, it turns out that these obvious fixes somehow don’t work. Why is that?
As I was thinking about this puzzle, I was struck by the striking parallels between New Year resolutions and change initiatives I would roll out from time to time in my firm in its early days. Much like the promises we make to ourselves about controlling diet, getting regular exercise, and sleeping on time; I would make these endless proclamations about documenting code, meeting delivery timelines, and keeping cellphones away during meetings. Everybody agreed those were good ideas. Everybody wanted to try the change. Everybody wanted the change to stick. However, quite inevitably, we would regress to old behaviors.
The Social Aspect of Behavior
When we think of changing behaviors, we tend to think in terms of habits. A New Year resolution is then nothing but a new habit, or a change of habit. We tell ourselves, somewhat arbitrarily, that the New Year allows us to exert an unprecedented control on our habits.
That’s the wrong story to tell ourselves. Instead, we need to view the things that we want to change from a different perspective. Rather than looking at them as habits we control, we need to think of them as practices we participate in. Let me explain what the difference is. When we think of habits, we tend to focus on the individual. When we think of practices, we go beyond the individual: We think of the broader social, organizational, or institutional context as well.
For example, the individual habit of smoking is situated within the context of a social practice of smoking. If you want to give up the habit, you cannot ignore the practice that shapes how you engage in it. That is the reason anti-smoking policies should not limit their scope to educating people about the ill-effects of smoking. They should also address the visibility and availability of cigarettes, the social desirability of smoking, and other elements of the practice.
And what are these ‘practices’? Practice theorists—sociologists who explore human life from a sociocultural perspective—tell us that social practices are bundles of activities we engage in. Examples of practices include skateboarding, going to the gym, or playing poker. A social practice brings together diverse elements such as motivation, bodily activity, mental activity, emotions, practical know-how, background knowledge, and material things. That’s a lot of different elements, right? Well, each practice integrates all of its constitutive elements in such a way that together they sustain the practice day after day. Let me explain with an example.
Consider the practice of going for a morning jog together with a group of joggers in the neighborhood. The practice brings together a complex amalgam of elements including your motivation to jog, your physical fitness, your ability to fit in other morning chores of the household, knowing which shoes work best for you, norms in a joggers’ group, rules at home that might impact your jogging schedule, the availability of a jogging track, and a fitness tracker. All of these pieces together sustain your participation in the practice of jogging.
Toward the Magic Formula
By now you are probably guessing where this is going. While there is no single magic formula that works for everyone, insights from practice theory can help you can find one that will work for you. In finding your magic formula, the key is to understand that your motivation, which is at its peak on January 1, is only one piece of the puzzle. Several other pieces need to fall in place for the practice of a daily jog to sustain and thrive. Thinking through each of these pieces is pivotal to making a successful resolution.
You may also need to review your lifestyle to see if you there are other components of your life that are antithetical to your New Year resolution. Maybe your job requires uncertain working and travel hours, not to mention working in multiple international time zones. That alone should make you think carefully and pick a resolution that is consistent with your work schedule.
The bottom line: If you want your resolution to stick, make sure that you don’t stop at making a resolution that is practical, specific, and genuine. Make room for the new resolution to fit into your life seamlessly. Also make sure that it does not conflict with other practices that may be beyond your control. Think through these points before you announce your next resolution: You will be glad you did.
So, here’s to making a resolution at which you can look back with pride, come December 31!