Why Humans Fail: The reason New Years resolutions don't stick! Part 1: The Mechanisms of Failure
Every year before January, we make grand plans for self-improvement - we vow to go to the gym, to eat more vegetables, to go to bed earlier... yet, the gyms start to empty around March and, as 'life' resumes after the holidays, we often fall into the same habits we vowed to change. It doesn't make much sense if we are rational creatures; why can't we act upon decisions like, "I will go to the gym 3 times per week"?
The answer to this dilemma, like most things in life, is complicated.
The truth is something we don't like to admit to ourselves: we aren't really rational after all, and whats worse is that we think we are! (Even now, I'm sure there's a voice in you head that said "I'm obviously rational, why can't I think that I am?!"). Unfortunately, just saying it rarely makes it so - and adhering to that philosophy will get you into trouble! The best way to understand this concept is to explore a common cognitive process that I have noticed occurs across all types of people in my 10 years of fitness coaching.
Humans operate under the assumption that they are rational, so when the New Year comes along, we command ourselves to change. Unfortunately, the command does not always produce results - despite commanding ourselves to go to the gym 3 times per week, our total gym visits after 3 months may be well below what we expected. Now, you said "go", so why didn't you? Often the reason we give ourselves is that we are busy with work/kids/relationships/networking, or too tired to do anything but relax after work, or too much of a 'night owl' to get up before work... I'm sure you have your own (I certainly do!).
Deep down, you know these excuses are simply that - excuses. They are valid reasons, but you know that with a shift in priorities or effort being applied, you could achieve your goal. Because we know this, we become overly critical of ourselves and internally hurl judgement about our dedication, ability, self-image, etc... What do you do to people who are overly judgemental? You avoid them... but how can you avoid yourself?! You stop thinking about the topic. So, 3 months after starting your New Years Resolution, not only have you stopped, you have forgotten about it entirely and are avoiding reminders (quick, remove all the "fitspo" people you followed on social media!!)... until next year.
The worst thing about this kind of behaviour is that the more it happens, the more ingrained it becomes. This cognitive pattern then bleeds into other areas of your life.
This is where I'll introduce you to the wonderful world of cognitive dissonance. Simply put, cognitive dissonance occurs when you are confronted with something that contradicts your belief - e.g. You believe you are too tired to go to the gym after work, but you go out for late drinks with your mates that night. Your behaviour and beliefs don't match up. You have two choices: (1) Change your belief or (2) Rationalise away the problem. We often choose (2)... Yes, even you! This is the birthplace of the "yeah, but..." category of excuses...
"Yeah, I guess I could go to the gym, but that will tire me more, my friends are fun"
"Yeah, I could go to bed earlier, but I haven't had any me-time today so I want to watch TV"
Now, these are VALID, I'm not saying they're not. However, they are also rationalisations that take you further from your goals - and remember, you set those goals, I did not force them upon you.
Unfortunately, rather than accepting that we are not entirely in control of our actions, or accepting that our belief isn't entirely true (e.g. we are not "too tired" to do things), we "yeah, but" our way out of responsibility. Now, remember, you do have minimal amounts of spare time - life is busy - and who am I to say how you should spend that time? What I'm trying to bring your attention to is that you make time for things like watching Game of Thrones... so you do have spare time, but you don't spend the time on exercise, despite setting out plans every year to achieve goals that require exercise. That's why, deep down, we know the "yeah, but"'s are just excuses.
Have you ever seriously considered why you make time for GoT and not the gym, or why you have money for drinks with friends and not for a personal trainer or dietician?
It's relatively simple: you value one thing more than the other. Whether you know it or not, watching GoT, or getting takeaway, etc., sits within a value hierarchy that starts with a micro routine (watching GoT) and ends with your abstract idea of what constitutes a "good person". Yes... I did just say that you believe that watching GoT makes you a good person!
This leads us to "Hierarchies of Value"
Value Hierarchies are just what they sound like: larger abstract values that can be deconstructed into smaller and smaller thoughts and actions. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we ascribe value to everything we see because we are goal oriented creatures, and achieve these goals with action (bodily movement). The things that help us reach our goals are more valuable to us than the things that don't (see the Philosophy of Pragmatism for more information... or just trust me!). To add a level of complexity; unlike other animals, humans have the ability to conceptualise abstractly and create categories to help us reach our goals - if a micro routine is nested in a Value Hierarchy that ends with a positive conceptualisation (what we want), then we are more likely to do it!
We will explore the concept of Value Hierarchies more in Part 2... This is where you will come to understand how I made the connection between "watching GoT" and "good person". We will also look at what I believe is the best conceptualisation of the Mind-Body Paradigm (which is not as 'new age' as it sounds!).