Now that we've begun the new year, the gyms are full, grocery stores are doing a brisk business in broccoli and kale, and self-improvement books are soon to be topping the best-seller lists.
It's not hard to come up with ways we can improve ourselves. And the turn of the calendar year is a good time to make a fresh start. Whether we want to learn a new skill, save more money, or get in better shape, we make our New Year's resolutions, and we say to ourselves, "This time I'm really sticking with it."
But sadly, for the most part we don't.
Dr. David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, cites research showing that by January 8—just one week into the new year—some 25 percent of resolutions have fallen by the wayside. And by the year end fewer than 10 percent have been fully kept.1
Many of us, aware of this high failure rate, don't even bother making resolutions in the first place.
According to author and leadership expert Erika Andersen, about 40 percent of people don't make any New Year's resolutions at all. This most likely isn't because they can't think of any ways they need to improve, but because they know they're just setting themselves up for failure.2
So is there any hope of making a lasting change in our lives, or are our bad habits simply too ingrained?
The Problem With Willpower And Discipline
According to Dr. DeSteno, the key to personal change is not learning to exert stronger self-control. Having self-discipline is important, but studies have shown that by itself it's not a strong enough motivator for lasting change.
"The research on self-control," he says, "shows that willpower, for all its benefits wanes over time. As we try to make ourselves study, work, exercise or save money, the mental effort to keep focused and motivated increases until it seems too difficult to bear."
But studies have found that what does work to facilitate long-term change while lightening the burden of self-discipline is positive emotion. These are feelings like gratitude, compassion, and an authentic sense of pride (not hubris). Basically, the components you’d typically find in what could be summarized as optimism.
Andersen has found in her work that harnessing this positive emotion can be as simple as identifying the motivation for the change a person wants to make. She suggests that if you want to lose weight, you should take a piece of paper and it divide it into two columns. On the left side list the difficulties you expect to encounter when pursuing this goal. On the right side list the benefits you'll gain from trimming down.
"Be honest," she says. "If the right hand one doesn't feel more compelling to you than the left hand one, you almost certainly won't change your habits."
If that's the case, don't give up yet. You just need to go back to your right hand column and find some stronger, positive motivations. One way to enhance those motivations is to limit the negative ones that can impact your optimistic outlook.
The news cycle, particularly financial-related news, tends to focus mostly on the negative. If you find yourself feeling fearful or worried about the unknowable future take that as an indicator it’s time to refocus on things you can control.
If you need help with motivation to maintain a positive outlook, talk to your trusted advisor to learn more about how good habits you follow now can help you toward your long-term financial goals.
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