After predictable over-indulgence during the festive period, many of us will make New Year resolutions. Estimates suggest a quarter of us won’t last more than a week. And yet, more than half of us (60%) will still make exactly the same resolution next year! Could we be happier and healthier if we scrapped New Year resolutions altogether?
Madan Pillutla, Professor of Organisational Behaviour, London Business School, explains: “Some estimates suggest that a staggering 25% of us give up on our New Year resolutions by the end of the first week and that less than half of us make it six months into the New Year. And yet, 60% of us will make exactly the same resolution next year, when the vast majority of us will fail again. Two ideas from social psychology might help us understand why.
“The first is the ‘what the hell effect’. People who are on a calorie counting diet and who after having eaten a sinfully decadent dessert at lunch, go on to eating a lot more on that day because their limit for the day has been shot anyway, will recognise this effect. If we overstep a self-set limit, whether it’s eating, spending or procrastinating, we tend to binge with high hopes of a fresh start the following day.
“Ironically the New Year resolution leads to a worse outcome than if we had never made the resolution in the first place. Repeated failures pile up. I will go to the gym five times a week, but it is Wednesday already, and I have not gone to the gym. The week is shot anyway, so I will not go this week and make a fresh start on Sunday. Eventually we decide we should give up entirely this year and make a fresh start next year.
“Unfortunately we don’t learn from our mistakes and this is because of a second idea: the ‘planning fallacy’. We make optimistic estimates of our ability to follow through on resolutions despite evidence that we have not been very successful in keeping resolutions made in previous years.
“If you want to make and keep a resolution, examine your failures for situational and personality barriers, set realistic goals and don’t make resolutions that are very difficult to keep on a day to day basis. But remember that not making a resolution might lead to a healthier and happier life than making one that can lead to the ‘what the hell effect’.”