Verbal resolutions don’t start physical revolutions

John Devitt

With another New Year’s over, it’s likely that some of us set forth resolutions that we hope to achieve during 2012.  Given that it’s been a week since New Year’s, it is even more likely that many of us have already failed on those resolutions. Whether you promised your family that you would quit smoking on New Year’s Day, or that come Monday, you and your best friend would hit the gym together to shed some of that 2011 poundage.  Chances are very high that those goals have already been derailed.  You see, as soon as you opened your mouth and told everyone your intentions; you were already dooming yourself to failure.

The New Year’s resolution has been a popular tradition for hundreds of years and it is difficult to trace its roots.  However it is obvious that a New Year resolution carries more significance then a resolution or goal set during any other time of the year.  This is because of the element of the New Year, a fresh start and the anticipation of new beginnings.  In fact, most of my friends that I talked to about this, have said just that.  The New Year gives them an opportunity to reflect on the past year, a chance to determine where they’d like to be one year hence, or simply to look inwards.  For many people taking life too seriously and running around without a chance to breathe, New Year’s is the only time they can stop and reflect on their selves.  However, during my highly scientific and accurate survey of the Canadian population, I discovered that fewer than 30% of people have made New Year’s resolutions.

It seems that the general trend and reasoning for low participation, is a correlating low success rate.  A University of Bristol study by Richard Wiseman in 2007 demonstrated that 88% of New Year’s resolutions fail.  Many of those I spoke with implied that after many years of not having accomplished their resolutions, they seemed indifferent to attempting another.  Moving past that indifference, it’s interesting to learn why resolutions have a propensity to fail.

Research undertaken since the 1930s has attempted to explain how best to accomplish goals we set for ourselves.  In recent years this research has been synthesized and popularized by Derek Sivers, an American “life coach” whose presentation at a Ted Conference in 2010 thrust the idea into the mainstream (  You can find dozens of blogs and websites dedicated to this concept and expanding on Sivers’ ideas.

Many believe that if they verbalize their resolutions then that will make them “real”, and sharing them with friends or family will help hold them to it.  Unfortunately, at a failure rate of 88% the most common resolutions fail before they have even begun.

However, Sivers’ analysis demonstrates the opposite to be true.  Our brains are wired in such a way that we feel good when we accomplish something.  We feel gratification when accomplishing our task or goal.  However, when we share our planned goals with others, the generally positive and supportive response we receive acts as a trigger for our mind.  We feel the same as though we’d already accomplished our goal.  Once this has occurred, our subconscious becomes lazier and our mind does not work as hard to achieve our ambitions.

Is it possible that we already understand this on a deeper level within our society?  Does the knowing that when we speak our goals out loud they will likely fail, lead to our skepticism when a friend tells us they are quitting smoking?  Is it why we feel such disdain and distrust of our politicians when they are campaigning for our vote?  Whatever they say isn’t necessarily a “lie”, they’ve just inadvertently doomed themselves to not accomplishing their campaign goal by telling us about it.  For instance, Barack Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay while running for office, yet it is still home to 171 “detainees”.  On the other hand, the BC Liberal government said nothing about implementing the HST, and look what happened there.

So going into 2012, if you’ve already failed at your New Year’s resolution, don’t despair.  Try to defer that feeling of gratification until you’ve accomplished something.  Keep your plans to yourself this time and see what happens.

What are your thoughts on all of this?  Have you been successful with past resolutions?  Have you set one for this year?  Sound off in the comments below!