As January comes to a close, the first month of the New Year is under our belts. Thirty-one days ago, you might have made a resolution. Has it lasted so far? Did it last a week, much less a month? Sure, you went to the gym every day until January 7th, but then where did the motivation go? According to the University of Scranton, of the 45% of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions, only 8% actually achieve those resolutions. It turns out that by February most people have thrown their resolutions out the window.
Unfortunately, these statistics don’t tell us what’s really going on. There must be some reason why we just can’t keep our resolutions. Resolutions, according to Timothy Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada, are a form of “cultural procrastination.” This cultural procrastination is an “effort” made by people to reinvent themselves. People think that making resolutions is a way of motivating themselves; however, Pychyl states that the reason people can’t succeed is that they aren’t actually ready to make changes to their bad habits.
Compounding the problem are unrealistic and unreasonable goals. “False Hope Syndrome,” according to University of Toronto psychology professor Peter Herman, is a phenomenon that occurs when people fail because their goals are unrealistic. People become overly ambitious and have many brilliant ideas for the upcoming year and for their new selves, but they do not have the drive to actually get up and take action. We have become a society of planners — we can sit at our desks and look up various plans to run a marathon, we can read a book on how to lose weight, but when it comes to actually going outside at 6 am to run or breaking the habit of eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s each night, we can’t stop. People equate planning with effort and continually ask themselves why nothing’s working when they haven’t actually done anything at all. It is the same brain process as with procrastination; people are afraid to fail. It’s easier to be comfortable and not change than to put oneself out there and experience change.
According to Penn’s own Maurice Schweitzer and experiments conducted for the study “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-prescribing Goal Setting,” people will report achieving a goal even if they were not actually successful. Positive reinforcement from others is prioritized over honesty. Many people would rather have an overtly positive and dramatic response from a colleague or friend than no reaction at all.
This isn’t just a problem for Americans as individuals, either — historically, corporations have self-destructed by setting unrealistic goals. One example cited in “Goals Gone Wild” explains the case of Sears setting a goal for its auto repair staff of $147 charged per hour in the early 1990s. This led staff to overcharge for work and to complete unnecessary repairs on a company-wide basis. Unfortunately, goal-setting creates a focus on the end rather than the means. People will do anything to get to that goal, even if getting there is not legal, safe, or ethical.
Perhaps a new goal for Americans this year should be to not lie about goals, to not set unrealistic ones, and to simply focus on one area to improve on. After all, haven’t we always been told that it’s not about the destination but rather the journey to get there?