Why we suck at keeping New Year’s resolutions

It is no mystery that New Year's resolutions, like the promises they are, are made to be broken. Statistics and research published on academic journals and international broadsheets show that people spend three to six weeks on average before giving up on their resolutions, and that around nine out of 10 people who set out on New Year's resolutions are doomed to fail.

Sadly, even if you follow all the tips for effective goal-setting as annually published by dozens of lifestyle magazines and blogs and self-help authors, you are about as likely to predict the outcome-heads or tails-of a coin toss as you are to succeed.

If there's one habit that we, as a species, have not been able to kick, it's making New Year's resolutions and breaking them some weeks after. That's no mystery. What strikes me is why that should be.

In my experience, we make resolutions out of a strong desire to change something undesirable in ourselves. Like everyone, I've been wanting to lose weight and be fit for some time now, and I'm convinced that if I don't change my lifestyle now, my future self will be blaming the present me for diabetes, heart failure, broken hips, and other maladies. Yet every year, despite the urgency of the problem and my desire to change, I continue to gain weight.

In some ways, it's easy to explain. Some boil it down to resolutions being a process of "going through the motions" signaled by the season, in the same way that the start of December signals children to start caroling. Others say we make resolutions because the people around us do, so that it's a big, persistent bandwagon effect. Either point implies that the desire to change is not really there.

On the other hand, the more pragmatic of us might attribute it to more practical reasons such as focusing too much on the negative aspects of change, such as suppressing your sweet tooth or thinking about the pain of exercising, which can be very discouraging. Or not setting goals that are specific, measurable, or realistic: what does "losing weight" mean, for example? How do we accurately measure success?

But by far the most compelling explanation I've found is on the physical limitations of the human brain. It is, after all, a muscle, and just like any other muscle, it can only exert itself for so long before it begins to give out. Scientists have recently found that exercising your willpower in fact literally exercises and strains the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for keeping us focused, solving abstract problems, and managing our short-term memory.

This makes sense to me because we all experience this: we've all felt that sensation of being tired after brainstorming, crunching numbers, or reading Heidegger. In fact, some of us might even say that mental effort is oftentimes more taxing than exerting physical effort. Exerting your willpower is similar to these: it is the intentional, conscious mental act of deciding to do or not do things. When you have a New Year's resolution, you exert your willpower repeatedly, more often than normal. And that's extremely tiring.

This is the scientific explanation for why most people who make New Year's resolutions don't succeed, in a nutshell: the brain wasn't designed to do so. This is not all bad. After all, this is also the reason why we're so effective at making and maintaining routines, which makes our everyday lives more efficient and, frankly, livable. However, it also suggests that the issue of self-improvement is less about things such as character and self-control than it is about physiology and biology.

Apparently, we are hard-wired to resist change; it is built into our human nature. "The human mind is a miracle, and you will never see it spring more beautifully into action than when it is fighting against evidence that it needs to change," as writer David Wong put it in a recent article on Cracked.com. The harsh truth is that everything inside you will fight improvement; that is our physical, biological make-up.

But I believe this is also the primordial impulse behind our admiration for professional athletes, classical musicians, and other top-rate performing artists. They are living examples which demonstrate that character can overcome our physical limitations, and overpower our biological make-up-that there is, in fact, such a thing as the triumph of the human spirit. That's the good news.

Aristotle famously said, "We are what we repeatedly do," but most people are less familiar with the fuller, deeper quote: "We become just by performing just actions, brave by performing brave actions... we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather we have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." Unfortunately, that's the bad news. Most of us do not start out just, brave, virtuous or excellent; we have to exert ourselves, repeatedly, to get there.

So why are we so bad at keeping New Year's resolutions? Part of it is human nature, but I'm convinced that the other part of it is that we experience resolutions as a kind of wishing. We have a daydream of what we desire to be in the future, and we hope, rather than will, that we get there. The difference is that the former requires a genie; the other requires that we stop looking for a magic carpet, find a map, and start walking to our destination.