What Not to Do on New Year's Day, or Why Making Lists of Resolutions is a Bad Idea

"When people have to make a big change in their lives, their efforts are undermined if they are trying to make other changes as well.  People who are trying to quit smoking, for example, will have their best shot at succeeding if they aren't changing other behaviors at the same time.  Those who try to quit smoking while also restricting their eating or cutting back on alcohol tend to fail at all three--probably because they have too many simultaneous demands on their willpower.  Research has likewise found that people who seek to control their drinking tend to fail on days when they have other demands on their self-control, as compared with days when they can devote all their willpower to limiting the booze.

"Above all, don't make a list of New Year's resolutions.  Each January 1, millions of people drag themselves out of bed, full of hope or hangover, resolved to eat less, exercise more, spend less money, work harder at the office, keep the home cleaner, and still miraculously have more time for romantic dinners and long walks on the beach.

"By February 1, they're embarrassed to even look at the list.  But instead of lamenting their lack of willpower, they should put the blame where it belongs: on the list.  No one has enough willpower for that list.  If you're going to start a new physical exercise program, don't try to overhaul your finances at the same time.  If you're going to need your energy for a new job...then this probably isn't the ideal time to go cold turkey on cigarettes.  Because you have only one supply of willpower, the different New Year's resolutions all compete with one another.  Each time you try to follow one, you reduce your capacity for all the others.

"A better plan is to make one resolution and stick to it.  That's challenge enough.  There will be moments when that will still seem like one resolution too many, but perhaps you can persevere by thinking of Amanda Palmer heroically frozen in place on her pedestal.  She may not consider herself a disciplined person, but she did learn something inspiring about her species even during her days surrounded by drunken hecklers and gropers.

"'You know, humans are capable of incredible things,' she says.  'If you simply decide that you're not going to move, you just don't move.'"

--Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011), pp. 37-38.

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