As another year draws to a close, many of us come up with ill-fated plans to become better, fitter, slimmer, richer, more organised, and more learned people.
We’re going to lose weight, quit smoking and finally save some money.
We’ll run marathons and get promotions at work and redecorate our homes to look like Pinterest boards, and nothing is going to stop us.
Only it is. Sorry to burst your bubble, but science suggests your hopeful positivity will more than likely fall to failure: 90 per cent of people who make new year’s resolutions will never see their ambitions come to fruition.
And while the fitspo pictures and motivational quotes lighting up your Facebook feed might drive you to hit the gym or buy mindfulness colouring books in the beginning, the positive thinking they inspire might actually be setting you up for failure.
In fact, all those Nike-like slogans and photos of sunrises should probably come with a disclaimer: achieving big goals is hard, and humans are lazy.
We want our svelte selves to shimmy confidently in an arena of admiration, but we do not want to put in huge amounts of effort every single day to get there.
But don’t give up just yet! We’re not all doomed to be fat and anxious in 2016, but the way we approach resolution-making might need overhauling if we actually want to achieve what we set out to.
New Year’s resolutions: Where are we going wrong?
“We humans are really bad at sticking to goals,” says Brisbane-based psychologist Lindsay Spencer-Matthews, who works with hundreds of new clients each year.
“Lasting change involves replacing habitual patterns of thought and entrenched patterns are hard to change.”
Resultantly, he adds, “New Year’s resolutions rarely see the end of January.”
Jay Roberts, a business specialist who works with individuals to improve their business practices, also sees the difficulty of implementing life changes.
We want to have the knowledge, as if it were a static object, but we don’t want to do the work of claiming it.Maria Popova, founder of BrainPickings
“I’ve found that when people set a plan, typically within three months, well over half fall off the perch,” he says.
One reason why goals fail is because people look for a quick fix and are dismayed when they can’t find it. “They start making excuses as soon as it becomes tough,” Mr Roberts explains.
So are those of us who fail to lose weight or save money just lazy? Did we not buy the correct Instagram-approved activewear? Perhaps we’re simply not determined enough?
The author of the popular website BrainPickings, Maria Popova, often laments people’s “extreme impatience” with the learning process.
“We want to have the knowledge, as if it were a static object, but we don’t want to do the work of claiming it,”she writes.
In broader terms, the appealing outcomes of achievement are applauded more than the effort involved.
The culture of instant gratification bred by the internet – where information, entertainment and results are accessible on demand – has particularly contributed to this tendency.
‘Fitspo’ for instance, refers to aspirational pictures of buff people posted to social media.
The work involved in producing such a body — restrictive dieting, hardcore exercise, willpower and deprivation — is never revealed, but the images themselves are used to sell exercise or diet programs, or simply the idea that such a physique is obtainable.
The power of positive thinking
The internet is likewise filled with pages of affirmations – positive statements which are thought to come true if repeated often enough; visualisation techniques where a person imagines a wonderful future and similar instructions for “manifesting” the things they need from “the universe” (e.g. a parking space); and “radical self-love“, where devotees solve emotional issues by writing lists of things they’re good at and buying products.
The message of these initiatives is that your life can be changed through the power of positive thinking alone. But can it really?
The idea that we have power over our situation is helpful when it comes to changing our lives, but it is only the first step.
At some point, thought must be put into action to make change. Goals that are actually possible — that connect to our values and recognise that change is really hard — are far more realistic and obtainable than simply coveting snapshots of the lives of other people.
Because — let’s face it — even though you might really want them, history and genetics suggest you’re never going to get #bikinibody abs.
That doesn’t mean you can’t be positive about going to the gym and setting realistic objectives, though.
The downside of positivity
“Positive thinking can be fantastic as long as it isn’t in isolation,” says Lindsay Spencer-Matthews, who says ignoring the negative side of things is “likely to undermine your wellbeing.”
Catherine Elvige can attest to this warning. She started following fitspo and restricting her diet after her grandmother died of bowel cancer.
While she found inspiration, she eventually became depleted of energy and nutrients. “I felt a sense of failure as my goals were almost impossible to reach while becoming underweight, lethargic, and feeling sick for most of the time,” she says.
Ms Elvige still values her health and runs a website for women trying to get fit after periods of inactivity. With the help of therapy though, she now rejects ‘positive’ images of slender legs and sculpted abs without context.
“While fitspo content can be motivational, it can also be intimidating and set unrealistic expectations.”
Are you setting yourself up for failure?
Kate, a Melbourne-based communications professional, also had a negative experience with positive thinking.
In the lead-up to the birth to her first baby, she researched visualisations and affirmations in the hope that everything would go smoothly.
“I was so sure that if I was positive then it would all happen as ‘normally’ as possible.”
Unfortunately, Kate’s birth was dangerous for both her and the baby. The baby was born healthy, but the experience was traumatic.
There is definitely a place for encouraging positivity, but relying on it to deliver outcomes is an entirely different proposition.Kate, Communications Professional, Melbourne
“It was [the midwife] who suggested that in all that positive thinking, I was setting myself up for even bigger disappointment and upset when things didn’t go the way I wanted them to,” she says.
While Kate continues to think of herself as an optimist, the experience has changed her relationship with positivity.
“I often think about the concept of being ‘too positive’ and how this can affect a reaction when things don’t go as you hoped.”
It is admirable to see people genuinely want to better themselves and overcome difficult situations. But basing goals on pure optimism is not a sustainable way forward.
Being aware of the problems you might face when pursuing your goals does not detract from your target, or make it any less worthy. If anything, it strengthens its value.
You persist knowing that each step brings challenges because you are convinced of the importance of doing so, not because you have fallen in love with the outcome while ignorant of the costs.
Says Kate: “There is definitely a place for encouraging positivity, but relying on it to deliver outcomes is an entirely different proposition.”
7 steps to better resolutions
Don’t fall victim to setting unrealistic expectations: it is possible to make new year’s resolutions you can actually achieve and have the 2016 you desire.
Here are a few lessons from Jay Roberts, Lindsay Spencer-Matthews, and research from the University of Hertfordshire, which in 2007 found the vast majority of people don’t achieve their new year’s resolutions:
- Have a driving purpose behind your goal that is important to you and taps into your values. If you want to get fit, think about why. For health reasons? To spend time outdoors? Knowing your underlying motivations will help you stick to your goal when it gets tough, and also lets you explore whether there’s another way to achieve what you want.
- Find focus. Changing habits is hard and requires consistent attention. Choose one goal and use techniques such as re-writing it every week, or using phone notifications to keep it fresh in your mind.
- Be patient. It took years before you could read, or even walk. Important things take time.
- Don’t be discouraged by setbacks. Trying once and failing makes it easier to try a second time and succeed.
- Don’t rely on sheer willpower. It is important to plan how your goal will be achieved by breaking it up into small steps and having a timeline for achieving key milestones.
- Aim for incremental change. Turn big goals into lots of little, less intimidating ones. You only have to change direction slightly to make a big difference – as Lindsay Spencer-Mathews points out, the Titanic would have missed the iceberg if it changed track by only 10 degrees.
- Have a realistic view of what is involved in the goal. Do research about the steps involved, how likely it will take for you to achieve it, and what the main challenges will be.