Hope springs eternal. At least on New Year’s. On this first of January, the coming year is a blank slate. It’s a time when we can set our goals – to exercise more, to eat less, to perform our best – in the hopes of making 2019 a year that we can look back on with pride. There’s one problem, though: the success rate for New Year’s resolutions is pretty bleak. Less than 10% of resolutions have been kept by year’s end and 25% fail before 15 January.
In a society as obsessed with success as ours – where bestsellers offering advice on how to be gritty, goal-directed, and disciplined line the shelves of almost every bookstore – this seems a rather odd situation. If the advice science has been offering for how to reach goals is on target, why are the success rates so low? It’s because the advice we’re being given is wrong.
To understand why, we should consider what resolutions are. At base, they’re almost all a form of a dilemma economists term intertemporal choice, meaning decisions that have different consequences as time unfolds. Keeping resolutions usually requires accepting some sacrifice in the moment to gain rewards in the future. For example, regularly putting money in an IRA (independent retirement account) rather than spending it to enjoy the newest smartphone or overpriced restaurant helps ensure a more enjoyable retirement; eating a kale salad for lunch, while maybe not bringing as much immediate enjoyment as a double cheeseburger, helps ensure a healthier future.
Yet while most of us would agree with this logic, we don’t typically follow it. Research by Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota shows that, on average, people give into temptations that conflict with their long-term goals about one out of every five times they try to resist – a figure that rises rapidly if they’re tired, busy or stressed.
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