Myths and facts about keeping your new year’s resolution

More episodes in the Health Hullabaloo Podcast

Is your resolution doomed to fail by the middle of January? Is it true that to get results you need to make a big change? Find out with Mark Faries, PhD, College of Medicine adjunct assistant professor and associate professor and state extension health specialist at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.

Episode Transcript

Mark Faries: Welcome to Health Hullabaloo. I’m Mark Faries here with Tim Schnettler. Good afternoon, Tim.

Tim Schnettler: Good afternoon, Dr. Faries.

Mark Faries: So I asked you before, do you have a New Year’s resolution? Has that changed?

Tim Schnettler: It hasn’t changed in the last five minutes. I told you I’m not big on making them. I mean, when I do, it’s usually the same ones over and over and I never accomplish ’em. I’ll be honest I don’t usually accomplish ’em.

Mark Faries: When was the last time you tried one?

Tim Schnettler: Oh, I tried one this past year.

Mark Faries: Oh last year? Okay.

Tim Schnettler: This past year and I got through maybe the first month or two and then I kinda started to tail off. And you know, you get busy. With me, it’s always one of those I’m gonna eat healthier. I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that. And then you get caught up in the day to day and you end up breaking it somehow.

Mark Faries: It’s interesting. Do you think these resolutions are different than like just people wanting to change throughout the year? It’s something special it seems like about a New Year’s resolution. It gives everybody at least one opportunity a year to take on a bigger resolution. And I think that’s the myth we’re gonna try to expose today potentially as we try to provide some clarity in all the confusion as we do on Health Hullabaloo Podcast. And so the idea that these resolutions, New Year’s resolutions have to be big, grandiose. I was thinking on the drive over here do you know anyone who sets small resolutions? Like I’m gonna eat one apple on January 2nd. That’s my resolution. I’m gonna ride the bike for 30 minutes on the 2nd and the 3rd and then feel good about it. I met my New Year’s resolution. I completed it. I was successful. We can’t think of one. Most people normally set these big ones.

Tim Schnettler: Yeah, it’s usually I’m gonna do the bike 30 minutes a day every day-

Mark Faries: Forever.

Tim Schnettler: Forever. I’m gonna go through the whole year, 365 days, but then it’s always well, I can’t start on this day because it’s a Wednesday. So I’m gonna start on Monday. But yeah, as far as smaller goals, don’t see that very often.

Mark Faries: Many years ago, I had this idea I was gonna learn Latin. And so for New Year’s, I like bought. It’s long ago. I had audio tapes. That’s how long ago it was. And so I bought audio tapes and I was gonna learn Latin but I never made it past that. I might have popped the first tape in and I had a book to go along with it and it was like too hard or something. It’s weird. Like I made those first kind of steps of commitment.

Tim Schnettler: Right.

Mark Faries: That were doable, but then this larger vision of resolution of learning a whole entire language was just too big. It could be problematic. You know, if you look at resolutions, the idea behind a New Year’s resolution by definition is a firm decision to do something. It doesn’t necessarily say it should be big or small. Now, it might also be a resolution not to do something. I’m gonna quit doing A, B, and C as opposed to start doing. I looked at some history of the New Year’s resolution and there is evidence of New Year’s resolutions so to speak 4,000 years ago with the Babylonians. And then into Romans. And then the early Christians. But those were all around religious resolutions. I’m going to repent. I’m gonna fix something this coming year, the error, so to speak, that I have made in the past year. I’m gonna do better in the future. And so these resolutions have been around for a long time. So then I started digging into the research on what kind of resolutions do people pick and are they big? And what we find is that most people do pick very large grandiose New Year’s resolutions. This one study I’m looking at here was from 1972. And the way it talked about big resolutions was general resolutions. And one thing that it noted in the results was that overly general resolutions are more difficult to assess compared to those which are specific, discrete, like small targets of change. So the example, it says it’s easier to report success in keeping a general resolution such as becoming an all around better person because of the lack of that specified criteria. Did you meet your resolution? Oh yeah, I’m a better person. But as soon as you start getting more specific or smaller, it becomes, one, it’s harder in like they say in the research to assess it, but even in life. How do we classify that we were successful in these small changes? What’s interesting is I worked it down. It said almost two thirds of the people in this study who had broken their resolution reported that the cause was themselves. Like it was the deliberate choice. I just quit as we talked at the beginning.

Tim Schnettler: Right, right.

Mark Faries: There was perhaps a lack of willpower or I kept forgetting, life got in the way. Only 36% of the failures were attributed to environmental forces. I guess other people maybe or the barometric pressure. We’ll do whatever we have to. You know, it wasn’t my fault. That’s the eternal optimist. So the statement here has really struck me and I’ll see what you think about this. It said that the decrease obtained in self concept ratings of these participants. In other words, they measured self concept or this view of self, positive, negative. Sort of like self esteem. It’s just your general, let’s say, view of self. So they saw that there was a decrease in the view of self in those people who broke their resolutions and it might reflect the process of attributing failure to self. So in other words, I set a resolution and I don’t get it. Thus, I changed my view of self because I didn’t get it. And self esteem can be impacted. I’m a bad person. We can start labeling.

Tim Schnettler: I’m a failure.

Mark Faries: I’m a failure. This labeling of self. And in the behavioral medicine research even with self monitoring from physical activity trackers to weight tracking, to any of these things that are commonly done with New Year’s resolutions, they’re not benign, in other words. We even see it with diabetes self monitoring and we might have talked about this before. I prick my finger to check my blood sugar but every time I do that, it reminds me of my diabetes. It reminds me of how I’m not eating as well as I should be but I’m trying. In other words, they’re not benign. They’re not valueless types of information. And so I started thinking about this. There’s a couple terms that popped up to me from the psychological literature. One is called self liberation. It’s used a lot with smoking cessation and changing those behaviors which are also common New Year’s resolutions. But self liberation is this idea that I believe I can change, one, and number two, I’m committed to changing. New Year’s resolutions are always seemingly used as an example, a prime example, of self liberation. We might akin it to willpower, this belief that I can and I’m gonna commit to change. What the research finds is that the more choices people have to meet a goal, the more commitment they’ll have. So for example, if a goal is to quit smoking for the New Year’s resolution, let’s say my only choice is cold turkey. That’s it. My commitment’s gonna be lower theoretically compared to if I had three options or two options. Let’s say the three were cold turkey, or I could do a nicotine fading like slowly go down with it, or the third option is just to do nicotine replacements going from cigarettes to nicotine patches, et cetera. Now, I have three options or choices. It increases the potential for commitment. And so we hear self liberation and New Year’s resolutions be an example but the problem is. The good thing about commitment is that we want to stay consistent with those commitments. And there’s a great book by Robert Cialdini called Influence. If you haven’t read it, it’s well worth it. He has a whole chapter there on commitment, and consistency, and how crazy we are as humans to stay consistent even with the smallest commitments. That’s why we get people to sign contracts. It’s the foot in door technique. Salesmen use it all the time, advertising, business. It’s used all the time. If I can get you to commit just to this little thing and then swoop back around a little bit later and say well, you’re already committed to this. Right? And making it public is even stronger now. So we make these big resolutions and maybe we make those public, maybe we don’t. So that was the first thing that came to mind was this idea of self liberation that we have to go big or go home. I gotta commit to something and I gotta think of something that’s big enough for me to believe in myself ’cause back to these small, why people probably don’t choose small resolutions is the meaning’s not there, don’t you think?

Tim Schnettler: Yeah. And to me, if I set one and I set a bigger one, I feel more accomplished.

Mark Faries: Yes.

Tim Schnettler: When I hit that if I hit that. I’m not always gonna hit it. But rather than well, there was one little step and I accomplished that. I think that’s just a part of the self satisfaction thing. You know? You want that big, big self satisfaction.

Mark Faries: Yes, and that’s right. And so these successes or failures as we just read, we can then interpret those and they influence the way we view ourselves. So in the weight loss research we did years ago, what we were finding was that, and we’ll kind of loop back around to this idea as we wrap up, but what we found is that I would ask these patients like how valuable or meaningful is your weight loss goal, like getting to that goal. Now, these people wanted to lose weight. They were committed to that, right? So I would ask them well, how meaningful would that be? And they’re like 10 out of 10, right? Zero, no value remaining 10. So the outcome was meaningful. So then I started asking okay, well how valuable on that one to 10 scale is being more physically active or eating healthy? But then they go those are valuable, pretty valuable too, right? Because I have to do those to reach this outcome that’s really valuable to me. So then I started asking okay, well how meaningful or valuable is skipping fast food when you want it? Or passing on the dessert when you really, really want it because it’s not in line with that goal? Or going to exercise, walk, or go to the gym, when you’d rather stay home in the warmth of your house-

Tim Schnettler: Right.

Mark Faries: After a long day at work? You know, how much do you value those times and how meaningful? And the value and the meaning just dropped. So in other words, they were valuing the outcomes, which is fine, but all the things they needed to do to get there weren’t as valuable. And so we have value in the big. We have value in the grandiose, the plans, the New Year’s resolutions. And so that’s what self liberation is telling us that’s what, as we’ll see in a second, the way we set goals generally. And some advice that we can give to the listeners as far as their New Year’s resolutions about setting big or small ones. I think that becomes very pertinent. But before we get there, there was a second thing that came into my mind when I read this. I made a note off to the side when it said that the decrease obtained in self concept ratings of those people who broke the resolutions. Say I’m a failure, right? I put a note: is it possible that making big resolutions help protect our view of self? Right? If I can set a big resolution and I’m probably not gonna do it, then could I set it so big where I could start attributing the failure to other things? If it’s so small that anybody could do it and then I don’t do it.

Tim Schnettler: Right.

Mark Faries: Oh my gosh. How does that? But if I set it so big that there’s probably a low probability that anybody would do it and then I don’t. Plus, there’s so many people that fail at New Year’s resolutions anyway so I’m like I’m just a part of the crowd. Well, there’s actually another psychological phenomenon, theory that relates to this and it’s called self handicapping. Have you ever heard of this?

Tim Schnettler: No, I haven’t.

Mark Faries: It’s this idea that we want to internalize success and externalize failure. So I want to maximize the impact that a success has on my view of self. So if I’m successful, I just want to soak it in and get the positive vibe and view of myself from that, okay? Now, if it’s a failure, I want to minimize the impact of that failure on my view of self. So we internalize success and externalize failures. So only 36% of these people in these studies attributed their failure to external. So if they would have known self handicapping, they could have set up the proper scenario. So I know your daughter plays softball. Do you play tennis or…?

Tim Schnettler: No. (laughing)

Mark Faries: Ping pong or pool? Are you good at any of those?

Tim Schnettler: Not really.

Mark Faries: Not really?

Tim Schnettler: Not really. We always question where she gets her athletic genes from ’cause it’s not from me.

Mark Faries: That’s funny. So I guess it is your wife then. So let’s pretend that you were good at tennis.

Tim Schnettler: Okay.

Mark Faries: As an example. Okay. I’m not good at tennis.

Tim Schnettler: Okay.

Mark Faries: I would like to be, but I’m not. So let’s say you and I are gonna play and I do not want to lose to you, Tim. So I have two tennis rackets. One of them is junk. It’s like the lowest, cheapest. It’s 40 pounds, right? There’s missing string.

Tim Schnettler: Old wooden racket.

Mark Faries: It’s wooden, it’s old. Some of the heaviest wood known to man. There’s broken strings. The paint’s coming off. The wrap around. It smells for some reason. Like it’s just everything is wrong. It’s not even shaped correctly anymore. And then I have a second racket. It’s brand new, made by NASA, right? Diamond flakes. It’s beautiful. It feels light but it makes you move. Like, everything is ideal about this second racket. If I want to maximize internalization of success and externalized failure, which racket do I give you?

Tim Schnettler: You’re gonna give me the good one.

Mark Faries: Exactly right. I’m gonna give you this NASA racket and then if I lose, why did I lose?

Tim Schnettler: Blame it on the racket.

Mark Faries: Oh yeah, of course. I had this crappy racket and you had this really good racket. It wasn’t me, right? I would minimize that internalization. I maximize externalizing it to the racket but also minimized the impact that that would have on me and my view of self. I know I’m not bad. And again, optimists are really, really great at doing this. If I win, then guess what? I just whooped your butt-

Tim Schnettler: With an old, cruddy racket.

Mark Faries: And you had this NASA racket and it didn’t matter. I still beat you in it. That’s how awesome I am. I can take this really, really poor crappy racket and still beat you in tennis. So that, I would be maximizing. So I started thinking about self handicapping with New Year’s resolutions. Like if it’s so big, or it’s something that’s so out of reach or so uncommon, then it probably helps me attribute failure at reaching that to other things. Now, this isn’t something we’re all thinking through. You know what I mean? That we’re thinking okay, how do I self handicap this? Just like students. We just had finals. So a lot of them were self handicapping and they didn’t even know it. They were going out the night before an exam staying up late. If they did bad on the exam, why was it? Oh, I stayed out late, you know, this, I didn’t have time, all these other things. And so they’re able to kind of safe face so to speak and inhibit that negative view of self. And so part of me is thinking as we examine these resolutions that people make commitment to change but they might be making large ones to protect their view of self. And I don’t know if that’s true, but I think it’s something to think about especially for everybody who’s listening who is gonna be setting. What would be an advantage of setting a big one? Like why is that advantageous? Well, there’s meaning. Well, what I’m gonna do now is kind of talk through how we can keep meaning, which is probably why we’re choosing big ones with smaller resolutions. Does that make sense? Or maybe not as large. And some people talk about it as breaking down goals and maybe not focusing on the big one now, and there’s definitely truth to that. But I want to come at it from a little different angle. And let’s use the weight loss example again. So we know that as we said earlier, people value the outcomes. And so the goals that we set around these type of outcomes, we can conceptualize those as be goals, B-E. I want to be healthy. I want to be a certain weight. I want to be this or that, okay? So I tend to draw these in gears in my classes. And so this is like a big gear. It moves very slowly. To reach this goal is gonna take some time and then click, it’s finally gonna. I’m gonna lose a pound, two pounds, five pounds, whatever it is. So that’s the be goal. Now, that’s the big goal and nobody can see what I’m doing here. I’m visualizing this humongous gear. So then there’s this smaller gear connected to that and we call that the do goal. Alright? So I need to be a particular weight or be healthy so I need to do exercise. I need to do healthy eating. I need to do whatever. But that’s still pretty big gear because doing exercise is complicated. Doing healthy eating is complicated. There’s a lot of things involved with that. That’s where most people stop when they set goals just day to day or with these New Year’s resolutions. They say okay, I want to be a certain weight so I need to do physical activity and so healthy eating and they stop. So we have two gears connected. If that do goal ever stops, so I’m not doing exercise anymore, then guess what happens to the big be goal? You’re not moving.

Tim Schnettler: It doesn’t move.

Mark Faries: It doesn’t move. So if you think of the second gear, the do goal, as one that’s spinning. It’s still not spinning fast, right? To say that you are being physically active, doing physical activity, that’s still a little slow moving but definitely faster than when the weight clicks off the scale. There’s a third gear that we commonly lose with these resolutions that arguably, I would argue is by far the most important. So it’s not that having. You gotta have the be goal.

Tim Schnettler: Right.

Mark Faries: There’s no point if you don’t, right?

Tim Schnettler: Right, right.

Mark Faries: You gotta have the do goals ’cause there would be no point as well. But there’s a third smaller gear that connects to the do goal and it’s called the action goal. So let’s say let’s do something really, really simple. Let’s say my be goal is to be healthy and for whatever reason, I think I need to take a multivitamin. So that would be my do goal. I need to take a multi. But what are all the small behaviors? What are all those small behaviors that I would need to do to be taking my vitamin? I would have to buy it. I’d have to remember to take it, unscrew the cap, pull that little cotton whatever out of it. Alright? Get a glass of water, put it in my mouth, drink the water. You know, it sounds very simple but those are all the actions or motor goal things that I have to do. So now, think of lose weight, be a particular weight, do more exercise. Well, what are some of the action goals?

Tim Schnettler: Well, you gotta get up and do it. I mean, you’ve gotta get off the couch.

Mark Faries: I’ve gotta set the alarm.

Tim Schnettler: Set the alarm to get up. If I’m going to a gym, drive to a gym.

Mark Faries: Or if I don’t have a gym membership, I gotta buy one.

Tim Schnettler: Right. Or I mean just put on my shoes. I mean, get dressed, all that stuff.

Mark Faries: I know. And not only put ’em on, but I gotta tie ’em. Right? And I gotta find an outfit. I gotta make sure the outfit matches if I’m going in public.

Tim Schnettler: Gotta have music.

Mark Faries: Gotta have music and this playlist. Oh, now I gotta upload music here. I gotta figure out where the kids are gonna go. I gotta pack my bag, put it in the car so I remember. I got all these little action goals that if those stop, our do gear stops. If the do gear stops, then the be goal gear stops. And so a lot of times when people set a big outcome for their New Year’s resolution, and they figure out generally what they need to do. They could even work out a specific plan like on this day, I’m gonna do this work out. On this day, I’m gonna do this one. And that’s all great. Again, you have to have those. But the encouragement in this scenario of setting big, this myth that I have to set big, you don’t have to. People could say I’m gonna eat an apple on January 2nd and that’s my New Year’s resolution and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if they do want to go big, then you have to move from not only the be goal to the do goal to these small little action. The problem is is how meaningful is putting on my shoes compared to being active and making it. It feels good. You go to the gym, you made it, you get done. It’s like wow, that reinforces. Then when you see the weight click off that scale, man, that’s because those are meaningful. I’m not saying we can put meaning but there’s a third term that I’d like to kind of wrap up with and it’s called transcendence. And it’s this idea that we can override sort of our moment and the difficulties and see past to those do goals and be goals. So when I’m putting on my shoes, I can add meaning to that because if I don’t do this, I’m not active. If I’m not active, I’m not reaching my bigger resolution. So the idea that I. And even difficult situations. We said earlier about how much do you value passing fast food when you want it or when it would be easy, right? Flying around the softball, this or that. I just gotta swing through somewhere. So I was talking to a lady just a few weeks ago and we were talking about this exact thing with kids and just being on the go. And I gotta drop one kid off here, one here. And her goal was to eat healthy. And that was valuable to her. But I started her is why is it valuable? Why is it valuable to you? So you got this big goal, eating healthy, but why, why, why, why? Well, we started thinking. It was like I want to be an example for my kids. That was her why. And that was the value, the meaning that was driving that do goal so to speak. But really, you could argue that’s the be goal too, right? That’s who I want to be is a role model for the kids. So how can she transcend that moment? And that’s another point off to the side real quick is that we get really good at setting these outcome goals like weights, or be a certain weight, or be healthy, or whatever, but it’s probably good to think about why in the world you would even want to be a particular weight, why in the world you would want to be healthy. There’s something driving that. Is it somebody else driving that? The more internal it is, clearly the more meaningful it is. So she could be driving around and what we talked about was when she has the urge and the business, and the stress, and anxiety that goes along with that to swing through, she can transcend that moment and think about my kids are in the back. If I drive through, this is not the example I want to set. It makes overriding that desire to stop meaningful because she transcended that moment. And so hopefully, even if the New Year’s resolutions are big, which I guess is. What do you think? Is it a myth? Here we are talking. Do you think it’s a myth, Tim?

Tim Schnettler: What?

Mark Faries: That people do set these big ones.

Tim Schnettler: No, I don’t think it’s a myth.

Mark Faries:Yeah, I think they do. Whether they are successful or not, that’s up to pretty much what we’re talking about. What are your abilities to add meaning and commitment to that, to believe in yourself? There’s a saying if I believe I can, I might. If I believe I can’t, I probably won’t. And so it’s not only the commitment to change, it’s the belief in that. It’s finding things with meaning and value and making sure you locate those. It’s not setting yourself up to self handicap, but always knowing that your failures. With mindfulness and other areas of study, we tell people that you are not your emotions. You’re not your failures. Yeah, you might be angry, or frustrated, or feel like that, but that’s just a feeling. That’s not who you are. And when we have identities that are rooted in other things, we can overcome that. But it’s not only about setting these big resolutions. It’s about making sure we find value in the small things that can build up. So maybe we need to go small or go home. Maybe that’s the Change the saying.

Mark Faries: Maybe we can change the saying. Well, Tim, do you got any other thoughts about that?

Tim Schnettler: No, I don’t. Just it was a great conversation. I mean, it’s something we all deal with, I think, because we all tend to set that resolution and we don’t always accomplish it. And so it’s one of those things where, like I said, I set ’em all the time. I try to make it. I make it to a certain point and I usually don’t get the rest of the year. Yeah, I will. There’s one thing that I have accomplished and it was drinking sodas.

Mark Faries: Oh yeah?

Tim Schnettler: I used to drink. I was one of those go to work. I’d get a 32 ounce on the way to work. I’d drink it. I’d get another one on the way home. Constantly drinking it. One day, my daughter said to me hey, I bet you can’t stop drinking soda. And I said let’s do it together. And we did. And I’ll be honest. Out of my wife, my daughter, and I, all three of us did it, I’m the only one who is still going. I made it the longest and it’s been, I guess, almost four years. Now, I still say I do drink caffeine. I drink coffee, I drink ice tea. But I gave up sodas completely.

Mark Faries: Well yeah, your goal wasn’t to give up caffeine.

Tim Schnettler: No, it was to give up sodas and I did.

Mark Faries: So why do you think it worked?

Tim Schnettler: You know, to be honest with you, it was kind of like that lady saying, “I want to set the example for my kid.” And so since my daughter challenged me, I said okay, I’m gonna set that example for her. And I think that had a lot to do with it. And then I just kinda lost the taste for it.

Mark Faries: I know. And then you started getting the immediate. And do you notice when you drink it again, it’s like oh my gosh, this is so sweet. Like how did I drink?

Tim Schnettler: I will say about a month ago, I accidentally picked up my daughter’s, her cup, and I took a sip. (grunting) It was the worst thing ever.

Mark Faries: I know. I’ve noticed that too over the years when I got less sugar like in my coffee, when I quit putting. And now I have coffee with sugar in it, it’s just like-

Tim Schnettler: Yeah, it’s too sweet.

Mark Faries: But then you start getting those little small immediate responses but it took that meaningful, big, be goal, right? That do goal to get you where you needed to be. So maybe we could encourage listeners and even in ourselves when we set these is to think about that beforehand. Why am I going to set this resolution to drink less soda? Why is that meaningful to me? What am I trying to accomplish beyond the number of soda, or the weight on the scale? And even is that even relevant to what I’m going after? Some people will choose weight as an outcome because they want to be healthy. Well, weight, as we’ve talked before on some of these podcasts, weight may be irrelevant to the goal that you have but we’re just saying it. Oh, I need to measure weight. I need to do. Maybe not. As soon as you start measuring something that’s not relevant to really why, then it becomes troublesome. Well hopefully, Tim, the listeners have something to take home with them.

Tim Schnettler: I think they do.

Mark Faries: For this upcoming New Year’s resolution. And I hope everyone comes back to the next as we take on the next myth in our podcast of Health Hullabaloo trying to get some clarity in all the confusion of all the health and fitness myths. Thank you, Tim. We’ll see you next time.

Tim Schnettler: Thank you as always, Dr. Faries.