Stay On Track With Your New Year's Resolutions: Part 1

Dec 21, 2020 10 Min Read
new year's resolutions
What is it about New Year’s resolutions that make it so hard to stay the course?

New Year's Resolutions and Motivation

If you’re looking to start 2021 with a New Year’s resolution, and especially if you have failed before, consider this:

Why is it so difficult to stick to a diet, yet so easy to brush our teeth twice a day?

If that sounds like an odd comparison, bear with me. 

Many people will attempt and fail multiple diets at various points in their lifetime, but never miss brushing their teeth the exact same way every day until the grim reaper visits for tea and biscuits. 

What is it about New Year’s resolutions that make it so hard to stay the course? We start strong, then slow down and finally stop. Why can’t we be motivated to stick to a diet the same way we’re motivated to brush our teeth?

You already know the answer. It’s because we’re not motivated to brush our teeth. 

Yes, we do it, but any course of action we can sustain over a long period of time has little to do with motivation, and everything to do with adherence.

Why can’t we be motivated to stick to a diet the same way we’re motivated to brush our teeth?

Put simply, adherence means the ability to stick to a plan. Motivation is just part of it. As long as it's aligned with our goals, the details only matter as much as we’re able to see them through. If you want to lose weight and keep it off, the best diet and exercise plan is the one you can follow. Everything else is the worst. 

In sports psychology, adherence can be broken down into six constructs: inspiration, motivation (there you are), intention, discipline, habit, and lastly passion, mostly in that order. If your plan of action can involve all six, adherence, and therefore success, is pretty much guaranteed. 

For that reason, it pays to understand these constructs so we know what best to do at each stage. In the first of this two-parter, we look at the two earliest constructs. 

1. Inspiration

This is where it all begins. The moment we tell ourselves “I want to do something”. And then we just do it.

Without inspiration, there can be no adherence, because there is nothing to adhere to.

Inspiration is unpredictable, powerful, and can absolutely change your life.

We can’t force it, but our odds of being inspired definitely go up by being around inspirational people, and by experiences that trigger strong emotions. 

Inspiration is unpredictable, powerful, and can absolutely change your life.

The only caveat is that it goes away as quickly as it comes. Great for starting something, but terrible for keeping us going.

As the graph shows, inspiration not only gets us going, but it rapidly escalates to well above the theoretical minimum level of adherence. It’s that feeling of wanting to do something new and to do it now. 

January 1st is that inspiration for us. It’s not meant to make you a ten-out-of-ten at something. It’s meant to take you from a zero to a one. Notice, though, that the line just as rapidly dips down below the minimum level and never goes up again. Inspiration time is now over. 

With no follow-up, you quit and wait for the next new year. A few rounds of this and you stop trying altogether. 

So when does the 1st of January stop being inspirational?

By the 2nd of January. 

That’s an exaggeration, but before it does fade, we need to progress to the 2nd stage:

2. Motivation

As the second construct of adherence, motivation refers to an inner desire to do something. To want to do it.
The downfall of many is confusing this with inspiration.  

Remember, inspiration is powerful and usually takes the form of big outcomes. Correspondingly, it can make us take really big steps, even if we don’t want to. In fact, inspiration can make us do stuff we consciously know we dislike

Can we really call that motivation?

We think we’re motivated to do it, but we’re really just inspired into action. This would be fine but for the fact that inspiration dries up fast

Meanwhile, notice that motivation results in smaller steps above the minimum level of adherence, but it lasts longer. In fact, it theoretically lasts forever.

Notice also that it occasionally drops below the minimum level of adherence. Even when we enjoy an activity, our motivation waxes and wanes depending on a whole bunch of other factors. Translated to a real-life New Year’s resolution, it means missing the odd guitar lesson or skipping the gym a few times. 

What’s important to appreciate is that true motivation gets us to adhere most of the time.

What’s important to appreciate is that true motivation gets us to adhere most of the time. This may sound bad, but it’s actually great. Compare it to inspiration alone, where adherence drops off permanently.

Say our New Year’s resolution is to ‘get in shape’. Every source says that lifting weights is the best way to buff up. We find the gym mind-numbingly boring but we go six days a week for the sake of ‘being optimal’. A month later we quit. Why?

Because our inspiration to look like a Greek statue is now gone, and our motivation to go to the gym was zero from the beginning.

Imagine if we’d ditched the weights and signed up for a membership at a rock climbing gym because we found it fun. Now, we actually look forward to working out, so much so that we stick to it for a year.

Ladies and gentlemen, congratulations. We can now call ourselves motivated. 

Even after the inspiration of New Year fades, the desire to keep climbing stays. Again, you don’t always adhere. But overall, you keep climbing regularly, and holy crap, you’re actually getting in shape along the way.

Does a year of rock climbing build more muscle than a year of lifting weights? No, but does it build more muscle than a month of lifting weights followed by 11 months of inactivity? Hell yes.

How do we maximise motivation?

Motivation absolutely depends on the journey. We need to love or at least like the steps we take and the milestones we reach - that’s how we accumulate successes which then serve as even more motivation to continue (they also contribute to the other constructs, but more on that in a later part). 
Pardon the following extremely generic points, but if the wheel is spinning just fine, why reinvent it.? 
Once we have your huge inspirational end goal, to maximise motivation, we should:

  1. Quantify the end goal and break it up into achievable mini-goals (for you corporate people, yes, this is a roadmap).
  2. Find enjoyable actions that align with our mini-goals.

Try it out! Take out a pen and sketch this road map out, then try to fill in the blanks. The topmost part is where you begin, and the bottommost one is your intended achievement by the end of 2021.
Everything in between are mini-goals, along with actions that can get us to those goals. Of course, the actions can repeat themselves, but the goals should become steadily bigger.

This is a lot harder to do when we’re starting something new because as a beginner, we don’t yet know what are realistic short-term goals. Anyone who has ever tried to teach themselves a skill or create an action plan will know exactly what this means. 

A lot of the information needed is available online for free, tempting people to take a more DIY approach. This really isn’t ideal, but if we insist or have no other choice, the least we can do is get a second opinion.

Otherwise, we are almost guaranteed to overreach, or worse, come up with gibberish. 

For that reason, it’s always better to get expert help on our New Year’s Resolutions. They can ask questions we never would have thought of ourselves. This helps not just with setting achievable mini goals but also with finding activities that we enjoy and let us reach those goals.

Motivation is not everything

As said earlier, motivation gets us to adhere most of the time. 

However, remember that motivation rises and falls. If that was all we had, this would still mean missing a few commitments. 

Luckily, it's not. In the next part, we look at how the other constructs come to help us during those rare moments when we ‘just don’t feel like doing it’. They typically only come in later, so it’s still important to maximise our motivation potential.

On that note, what is YOUR New Year’s Resolution, and have you broken it down into a manageable plan with enjoyable activities?

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Ashraf Farid had been happily teaching English until one day a student challenged him to ‘get a real job and prove he could make it outside the classroom’. He is currently a part of the Leaderonomics Editorial Team. His passion includes singing in the shower and fighting neighbourhood cats. During his free time he writes wicked bass lines he secretly knows are ripped off from Muse songs.

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