That gym membership that you used twice? Those 10 pounds you swore you would lose in 2015? The garage you were totally committed to cleaning? Ouch. It’s almost 2016. Looking back is not looking good. According to the website Statistic Brain, the top 10 New Year’s resolutions are not surprising: lose weight, get organized, spend less and save more (why is this counted as one?), enjoy life, stay fit, learn something, quit smoking, help others, fall in love and spend more time with family. Wouldn’t life be grand?
A lot of us make these commitments year after year; in fact, almost half of us. Statistic Brain forecasts that 45 percent of Americans will make New Year’s resolutions. Only 8 percent will keep them. At least on the Jewish New Year we spend more time looking back at commitments we’ve broken than at those we have yet to make and break.
The 8 percent statistic should lead us to quit now or make a resolution to make no resolutions at all. Why start if the success rate is so very low? But here are the redeeming numbers that often get neglected. A full 49 percent of those who make resolutions have infrequent success keeping them. The first week, you’re likely to have a 75 percent success rate. That drops to 46 percent after six months. But 46 percent is a winning statistic. It should give us reason for optimism. The numbers tell a different story than the one we may tell our brains in a moment of weakness. Infrequent success is not failure. It’s just success that’s primed to grow and stabilize with the right conditions.
We know a lot more about self-discipline today than we ever knew before. The Florida State University psychology professor Roy F. Baumeister claims in “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” that we all have a finite amount of willpower. It gets depleted as we use it because we use the same bank of willpower for any number of tasks and goals. It’s bound to dip into overdraft over the course of a day, diminishing our arsenal of discipline and elevating the capacity for temptation to do its dirty work. When temptation crouches at the door — a powerful visual image from Genesis 4:7 — and we’ve used a lot of self-discipline all day on other things, we’re likely to forget our big goals.
Baumeister calls this “hyperbolic discounting.” Temptation is easier to avoid when we actively ignore it. When the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, shoves its ugly face into the front line of view, it’s time to fight back. So here are five ways gathered from research that you can grow your infrequent success into a more regular triumph:
1. Remove the obvious visible barriers to your resolution. If you’re trying to spend less, spend less time in stores and online. Don’t buy your favorite junk food and expect not to eat it. This seems obvious but, unfortunately, it’s just not obvious enough. We’re human. We’re flawed and illogical creatures.
2. Make success easier by lowering the bar. Set bite-size goals (unless you’re dieting) and strengthen them with visible affirmations and reminders of long-term objectives.
3. Celebrate small victories. Tell others. Journal it. Reward yourself. Never minimize the importance of small motivational pushes.
4. Write your goals at the beginning of each day. Pause each morning to articulate what you want to achieve with intention and mindfulness. End the day with a similar exercise — a brief mental review to evaluate how you did. The daily check-in helps build up a reservoir of good will and discipline.
5. Don’t let small setbacks turn into large ones. When you fall down, don’t beat yourself up. Pick yourself up. Punishing yourself verbally will freight your goals with negativity. Keep it light. Keep it happy, and get back on the wagon.
Every small gesture in the right direction helps us create and sustain good habits and fight bad ones. In “Mere Christianity,” C. S. Lewis wrote that, “Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance.” Maimonides, in his “Laws of Repentance,” offers us the visual image of a scale that can get tipped by even the smallest behaviors. Our task is to see ourselves on this scale, precariously trying to weigh our deeds.
Shana tova. Let’s celebrate 2016 as the year of infrequent success. By translating small decisions into areas of infinite importance, we may find that when our new year comes around, we’ve actually made positive headway. After all, there is something profoundly Jewish about new year’s resolutions even if our calendars are off by a few months. And unlike Rosh HaShanah, try not to get too plastered. It’s a sure-fire way to break any resolution.
Erica Brown’s column appears the first week of the month. Her latest book is “Take Your Soul to Work” (Simon and Schuster).