Why New Year's Resolutions Fail (And How to Make Them Stick)
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An interesting business case study:
Planet Fitness offers $10 monthly gym memberships, a ridiculously low price for unlimited access to their facilities. Despite its discounted prices, Planet Fitness as a business is firing on all cylinders, and its stock price is up 134% over the last five years.
How can a company make so much money despite charging such low prices? With this one simple trick! They are banking on most of us never showing up.
A typical Planet Fitness gym only has the capacity to hold 300 people at a time. A typical Planet Fitness gym also has 6,000 paying members, half of whom never once make it to the gym. If you're a gym regular, make sure to thank your fellow members who never bothered to show up for subsidizing your fees.
Each year, "exercising more" is the top New Year's resolution, followed by "eating healthier" and "losing weight." Year in and year out, Google search interest in "gym" peaks in January before retreating for 10 months.
These failed New Year's resolutions are so predictable that billion-dollar gym chains have structured their business models around them. So why do we fail so often, and what can we do about it?
It's not a lack of desire that preludes our failures. It is just really, really hard to break habits that are ingrained in our daily lives. Sure, by sheer willpower you can force yourself to try something new for a few days, but sooner or later, you'll miss a day. Then another day. Then on the third day, you'll be too tired to wake up at 5:30 AM to hit the gym, and your coworkers will invite you to a happy hour at 6, so you don't make it after work either. This cycle accelerates until the next thing you know, it's been a month since you worked out.
Life certainly seems to conspire against us when we want to make positive changes, doesn't it?
James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, has studied habit development more than most, and in this blog post he mentions that it takes approximately 66 days for a new habit to form.
Now let's think back to the gym thing. Let's assume it will take 66 days for you to develop a habit of going to the gym. That is 66 opportunities for oversleeping, traffic, last-minute invitations, and a million other things to derail your progress. The odds of clearing that two-month gauntlet incident-free is basically zero, and those incidents will compound to ruin your progress. No wonder we suck at developing new habits.
So yeah, waking up and grinding away for 66 days is a doomed ambition from the start. Luckily, we don't have to do that. A new habit might take 66 days to take hold, but you don't have to make 66 independent decisions to work on this new habit.
You need to "lock in the decision" to take action beforehand in such a way that you default to following through with your resolution.
An example from my life:
I double majored in finance and Spanish and college, and I had dreams of continuing my Spanish to the point of fluency after graduation. Like most others who have studied a foreign language, I quickly dropped the ball with this goal. Two years later, when I visited Sevilla, I realized just how much my Spanish had regressed.
When I returned from Spain, I spent a few months trying different apps and programs like Duolingo and Babbel, but nothing stuck. I would "practice" for a week or two, then days without studying would quickly grow to weeks and months before the cycle restarted. However, everything changed when I found a site called Italki. Italki allows you to pay for 1 on 1 hour-long lessons in the language of your choice with a teacher from the country of your choice. In my case, I wasn't concerned with lessons. I just needed to speak as much as possible.
The hardest part of learning a new language, speaking every day, was now solved. The next problem, of course, was actually making time to speak every day.
The cool thing about Italki is that it lets you book bundles of 5-8 lessons upfront. My earlier problem with language learning was that I never seemed to have time to actually sit down and study the language. My days would fill up with classes or work, and any free time was spent with friends or on other whimsical things.
Spanish never cracked my rotation of "filler" activities.
However, when I could pre-schedule lessons weeks in advance, they became a concrete part of my calendar. Instead of planning my Spanish studies around my life, I planned my life (at least partially) around my foreign language studies. As far as my calendar is concerned, Spanish is no different than a corporate finance class, rugby practice, or business meeting. I also book my next set of lessons before completing the current one, so the cycle never has a chance to end.
As long as I continue to renew my lessons *before* the prior bundle runs out, I'm never making a new decision to practice Spanish. It's simply an automatic, integrated part of my daily schedule. Plus, working with a partner instead of studying alone provides an extra incentive. No one wants to ghost their teacher, right?
Another recent example from my life:
I want to cook more in 2023. The problem is that I never want to go to the grocery store. Going before class is a hassle, and going after class is a drain. Once I ran out of groceries in the fall, I fell into the habit of 1) coffeeshop for breakfast (optional) 2) lunch on or near campus 3) takeout or eating with friends for dinner 4) repeat. And this cycle lasted longer than I wanted: I didn't prepare a single meal at home for the entirety of October and November.
As with Spanish, I continued to fill my time with things other than cooking.
This changed on November 29th, when a company called ButcherBox sponsored one of my blog posts. ButcherBox ships a box of preselected quality meat directly to your residence. As I was looking over their product offering, it hit me that if this box of meat appeared at my door every month, I would be forced either to cook at home or waste $150 of meat. So I signed up for the service.
My first shipment arrived in December, and I found it much easier to run by my local grocery store for vegetables, sides, bread, cheese, eggs, and everything else that you would need to prepare meat-based meals. Buying everything from scratch from a hassle. Building meals around the predetermined meats was simple. And surprise, surprise! For the first time in months, I cooked the majority of my meals for a week.
Most New Year's resolutions fail because we struggle to choose the resolution over its alternatives long enough for the habit to actually stick. If you actually want 2023's resolutions to come to fruition, try flipping the process around. Instead of applying brute force to your resolutions, ensure that your resolutions happen to you.
Want to go to the gym? Sign up for personal training sessions so you are responsible to a trainer. Want to learn how to salsa? Schedule one on one lessons with an instructor. Regardless of the desired habit, obligate future you to take action through decisions made in the present. Future you's future you will be happy with the results.
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