Finally, Here's How to Keep Your New Year's Resolutions
Three ways to hack your unconscious and help with making coveted changes.
Posted Dec 02, 2019
It is 11.59 pm on New Year’s Eve. Excited voices are starting to count down the seconds to the new year. The air is full of cheer, and hopes, and a little nostalgia. And then, 3, 2, 1, there it is! The new year, still fresh and unburdened by bad news, conflicts, and expectations. As loud cheers and hugs fill up the room, you silently make your resolutions for the new year.
As it turns out, the odds may not always be in your favor. In 2018, a study conducted by Strava, the social network for athletes, concluded that sticking to those last-minute proclamations of changing our life after the ball drops lasts right about 12 days. By January 12th, in other words, most of us have given up and admitted to failure. Magazines from Forbes to Business Insider rush to give advice: “This Year, Don’t Set New Year’s Resolutions” and “80% of New Year’s Resolutions Fail By February—Here’s How to Keep Yours.” They provide mental tricks of reframing “resolutions” as “goals,” linking you to the best online time-management courses, and prioritizing manageable, measurable resolutions (volunteer one day a month at a food bank) over lofty, amorphous ones (“Next year, I will be a better person”). We will take a different approach to resolution-making and follow through.
Keeping your goals in mind and actually working consistently to achieve them are two different things. The former is very much a conscious activity. The latter is impacted by the workings of our unconscious. Here is how you can understand and hack your unconscious to help you in keeping your New Year’s, but hey, maybe even all other, resolutions.
1. Plan for Emotional Reactions
A lot of resolutions are made in moments of feeling motivated for change. That feeling is, in itself, a positive one—feeling empowered to effect change in our lives and believing in our ability to do so. By default, we have to feel these emotions to even consider changing some important parts of our daily routines. However, there is scientific evidence to suggest that our emotions don't last nearly as long as we estimate (check out this brief and informative article by Dr. Amelia Aldao). A recent study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion found that a crucial factor in how long emotions last is rumination or, in other words, what we tell ourselves when we experience an affective state.
Here is why this matters. As we previously discussed in Hack Your Unconscious: Why Negative Feelings Linger, we humans tend to more easily notice, focus on, and hold our attention on stimuli that evoke emotional states, rather than neutral ones. What is more, there are differences in attention allocation based on the intensity and valence of emotional stimuli. The more highly negative they are, the more we fixate our attention on them (Niu, Todd, & Anderson, 2012). There is also evidence to suggest that negative affective states make us reach out for exactly those unhealthy/unwanted coping strategies that we are likely resolving to kick-off, for example, consuming a whole bag of potato chips at 9 pm, lighting a cigarette, spending Sunday on the couch in front of the TV rather than walking in the park or meeting with friends. And, as we discuss in our book The Unconscious, there is a ton of research that explains how emotional stimuli activate associative networks in the brain and reactions beyond our conscious awareness.
You see where I am going with this. Emotions do not get nearly enough press when it comes to advice on how to keep your New Year’s resolutions. Yet, they are crucial to anticipate and plan for, if you want to succeed. When you are in a state of exhilaration or anticipation of the new year, feeling warm and fuzzy about the holidays, or motivated for change, it is easy to imagine making those changes. However, once the holiday decorations are down, and the drag of daily routines, cold grey clouds of January, and the monotony and ongoing stressors return, sticking to resolutions gets harder. We are biologically predisposed to process and focus on negative emotions first, which makes us more likely to engage in well-rehearsed old behaviors.
Our solution: Plan for What You Will Do When You Feel Negative Emotions.
You know yourself better than anyone. Notice your daily emotional ebb and flow. Set time in your day and week to implement the changes you want and plan for contingencies. If you wake up feeling sad or anxious, how will you motivate yourself to nevertheless stick to the plan? If you know a particular weekly work meeting makes you irritable and thus more likely to reach for a cigarette, how will you handle it? It seems simple, but many of us operate under the “I will deal with it if it happens” moto, which is hard to do because the mere fact of “it” happening means your abilities to deal with “it” are compromised. Having a fallback plan helps.
2. Frame Goals in Positive Terms, Again and Again
Remember ironic processes? (If not, head over here for a review of what they are and how they operate.) In essence, ironic processes are the mind’s “monitoring system.” They unconsciously keep track of other processes in the mind that take place outside of awareness. Like a fire alarm, they alert us to unwanted thoughts and feelings, but also (ironically), once the alarm has been activated, all other associations that go with it become activated too.
It goes something like this: If my resolution for next year is to save money, the third most common one after getting in shape and dieting to lose weight, I will have to focus on spending less. Day in and day out, my inner voice may be saying “Don’t buy that TV. You don’t need new pants. There is no need to eat out tonight.” The problem with this kind of self-talk is that our unconscious does not know the word NO. So all the mind is responding to is “buy TV,” “new pants!!!,” and “sushi, yum!,” along with all other immediate associations in the brain that come with relaxing in front of the TV, imagining wearing your new pants, and salivating at the thought of take out (a nod to Pavlov’s dogs here).
To circumvent this unconscious process, try framing your goals in positive terms. Not just the overarching goals, but the small day-to-day steps too. Give your mind something else positive to look forward to, in place of the things you are trying to avoid. Instead of "You don't need new pants, you need to be saving money," find something else to get excited about and redirect your attention to. Perhaps digging up the boxes under your bed and reorganizing your closet. "I have to get to the gym so I can lose weight" is dangerously close to the self-criticism that the thought of losing weight can activate, which, in turn, can easily bring up the negative emotions we talked about above. Instead, going to the gym can be framed as your alone time when you do not have to answer phones or emails, and just listen to the music you love.
This is essentially a cognitive strategy, but in the long run, the more you practice it, the more your conscious thoughts become automated and the less mental energy and effort it takes. Your mind becomes better equipped to quickly reframe thoughts more positively and, to turn Freud's words upside down, to make the conscious unconscious.
3. Consider Your Unconscious Motivation
Between the 1940s and late 1990s, an interesting field in psychological research blossomed—that of implicit motivation (to the curious reader, I highly recommend the writings of David McClelland, David Winter, Joel Weinberger, and Oliver Schultheiss). Since then, a growing body of work has focused on the fact that what we think we are motivated by and what really drives us are not always one and the same. It turns out that what we consciously tell ourselves that we want and what we truly desire (to quote Tom Ellis’ character form the show Lucifer) are frequently misaligned.
What is more, unlike the infinite number of conscious goals we can set for ourselves, what truly motivates us unconsciously falls into a small number of circumscribed categories. The three implicit motives that consistently emerged in studies are intimacy, achievement, and power. Later on, Joel Weinberger discovered and studied the oneness motive, but since the first three have been most extensively studied, we will focus on them here.
Achievement implicit motivation refers to one’s ability to derive pleasure from solving problems and mastering challenging tasks. It is the only motive of the three that does not require the presence of other people to be satisfied. People high in need for achievement will find ways of challenging themselves for the sole purpose of improving. However, it is important to note that for people whose predominant motivation is achievement, there is a fine line between challenging tasks and those that are simply too difficult. Because mastery is the source of pleasure, tasks or goals that are perceived as too complex or have a low probability of being mastered are not likely to be pursued.
Power implicit motivation, on the other hand, has to do with other people. People high in this type of motivation seek to impact the lives of others and derive pleasure by effecting change in others. At its very worst, power motivation may be expressed in seeking to control others through abusive practices. At its best, highly power-motivated people dedicate their lives to the service of others. So, the power motive is not inherently positive or negative; rather, it is the expression of this motivation that matters.
Intimacy implicit motivation is characterized by consistent readiness for seeking and experiencing interpersonal warmth, connectedness, and sharing of one’s inner world with another person. People high in intimacy motivation also tend to avoid confrontations, which would threaten the interpersonal harmony, and respond with significant distress to cues of relational problems.
We all possess all three types of motivation; however, one, or a combination of two, usually predominate. Think of a child solving a Rubik’s cube. Is the most satisfying part 1) finding a solution itself, 2) the satisfaction of solving before others and thus gaining social status, or 3) receiving praise from parents and feeling validated and loved?
The Implicit and Explicit Motivational Systems in Keeping Up with Resolutions
The motivation literature now recognizes the operation of two separate motivational systems, an unconscious one (consisting of the implicit motives above) and a self-attributed one (the infinite number of things we tell ourselves that we want). These two systems also predict different behaviors: self-attributed/explicit motives seem to affect short-term behaviors and verbalized goals in concrete situations, while the implicit motives impact spontaneous decision-making and long-term behavior (the kind that is needed for achieving your New Year’s Resolutions). In other words, if your verbalized resolutions or goals are not aligned with your implicit motivations, you may be able to stick to them for a while (remember how most people abandon them by January 12th?), but not in the long run.
Say, your New Year’s resolution is to lose weight. You may tell yourselves that this is because you want to be healthier (and this very well may be explicitly true). However, if you are high on intimacy motivation, feeling supported, exercising together with a close friend or a loved one will be a more effective strategy than doing it alone. Want to save money? Ask yourself why. Perhaps you want to buy a new house. What is the fantasy you have about having this new house? Is it important because you want to share it with your family (intimacy), because upgrading is a status symbol (power), or to have a workshop in the basement so you can spend hours tinkering (achievement)?
As you also might expect, it is difficult for us to know where we fall on each of the above implicit motives. We all have them but at different levels. However, it is hard to self-report which one predominates because, by default, they are unconscious. Any verbal report of what we think motivates us is a report of explicit motives, not implicit ones. It takes a lot of self-reflection, noticing patterns, and shedding years of self-protective layers in order to recognize what our unconscious motivations are. Sometimes, they happen to be better aligned with our explicit ones and we stay on track with our goals. However, if you find yourself struggling, year after year, with resolutions you cannot achieve, it is possible that there is an internal struggle around them.
My suggestion here is: Go to Therapy. Not only will it help you understand yourself better, but also you may learn how to better align your explicit goals with your unconscious motivation. After all, people who do so have been shown to be happier and report a higher sense of well-being.
Weinberger, J. & Stoycheva, V. (2019). The unconscious: Theory, research, and clinical implications. New York: The Guilford Press.
Niu, Y., Todd, R., & Anderson, A. K. (2012). Affective salience can reverse the effects of stimulus-driven salience on eye movements in complex scenes. Frontiers in Psychology, 3:336