For many people, the New Year is the catalyst for making changes they didn’t have time or energy for in the previous year. On 1 January, the list of resolutions grows promisingly long, but keeping them can become a real ordeal in the tangle of daily problems and deadlines. Statistics show that even before the month of snowdrops, many of the commitments made at the turn of the year are abandoned as willpower and motivation fade.

Talking about the decisions we make on the eve of the New Year seems inappropriate at the beginning of February. Given the short lifespan of many of them (and the fact that the first few weeks see a massive abandonment of the race to keep them), we could say that we are at exactly the time when we need to understand the sources of successful adoption of new habits and how to restructure our motivation before we give in to the old—and oh-so-familiar—lifestyle.

Perhaps we’ve been desperate to shed those extra 10 kilos and the dream of the perfect body has led us to pay for a year’s gym membership without a second thought. Days or weeks later, however, the distance between home and the gym seems to grow, and in a flurry of excuses and regrets, we perform a requiem for the dream that seemed so tangible in the glow of initial enthusiasm.

In the healing core of the diets adopted immediately after the culinary debauchery of the winter holidays, the old products full of calories and food additives are revived, nipping in the bud the march of the taste buds towards healthy flavours.

These two resolutions are at the top of the New Year’s list, but unfortunately keeping them gets boring all too quickly, and it’s only a step from there to killing them gently. A glance at the statistics shows that our failures don’t make us a crippling minority, and that abandoning New Year’s commitments is actually the preserve of the overwhelming majority.

Giving up just after the start

According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, only 8% of Americans who set goals for the New Year actually achieve them, while 42% have never managed to follow through on their good intentions and 48% have rarely tasted success.

This journey down a road littered with good intentions but ending in a dead end is also familiar to the British. According to a survey conducted by Bupa in November 2015, only 1 in 8 Brits have managed to tick off the goals they’ve set for themselves. While 80% failed after three months or even sooner, 66% capitulated to the effort of pushing the resolution boulder up the hill within the first month.

Failure doesn’t seem to come as a surprise even to the protagonists, as another Bupa survey, published in December 2016, found that half of those intending to make a lifestyle change weren’t at all sure they would succeed.

Strava, the social network for athletes, has even identified a “quitter’s day” which, not honourably, falls in the first half of January. By analysing over 30 million activities worldwide in January, Strava found that the second Friday in January was the day when motivation to exercise collapses.

Another study, cited by The Independent, found that the average person follows their resolutions faithfully for 3.5 weeks, so 24 January would be “failure day”. According to U.S. News, 80% of New Year’s resolutions persist into the second half of February.

Although the figures don’t add up perfectly, the overall picture is not a happy one: the odds of change seem to be more against those who want to change their habits than for them. However, research shows that people who set explicit goals are 10 times more likely to achieve them than those who don’t. The key is to manage your resources wisely, not get discouraged by obstacles and, above all, set achievable goals. It’s tempting to put sweeping behavioural changes on the list, but when willpower is forced to fragment between competing goals, defeat is knocking at the door.

All or nothing

Ambitious resolutions can take our enthusiasm to dizzying heights, but practice shows that their longevity is rather questionable. The realism of big changes (running 10km a day, giving up dessert for good, reading 100 new books a year) is inversely proportional to the distance between them and your current habits. “Setting small, attainable goals throughout the year, instead of a singular, overwhelming goal on January 1 can help you reach whatever it is you strive for,” says psychologist Lynn Bufka, stressing that the focus shouldn’t be on the extent of the change, but on the awareness of the need for change and taking small steps towards the goal.

If the mind perceives the effort required for change as too difficult, it can sabotage the process. A report by Dstillery, based on the collection of data from 7.5 million mobile devices of people who visited gyms around the world between February and March, revealed the impact of physical distance on gym attendance. Those who had to travel eight kilometres to the gym only went once a month, while those who lived six kilometres from the gym went at least five times a month. Perhaps two km is not a significant distance in itself, but the brain seems to think otherwise when it processes this information.

The idea of a very large change over a short period of time has an infinitely seductive power, as evidenced by the popularity of diets that promise to shed many kilos in a matter of weeks. According to Dr Roberta Anding, Professor of Nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine, small lifestyle changes are a better predictor of real results. The chances of success are increased by treating proposed goals as resets rather than resolutions, says Anding. A reset involves flexibility in the strategy adopted as the person discovers what works best for them. Resetting also aims for moderate and realistic goals—for example, changing the amount of carbohydrates in the diet, rather than eliminating them over a long period of time. Ultimately, resetting is about building long-term healthy habits, whereas one of the downsides of resolutions is that they are perceived by our brains as temporary, with a clearly defined start and end date.

An almost foolproof recipe for self-sabotage is to bite off more than you can chew, points out author James Clear in an article published in the Huffington Post, in which he boiled down the problem of change to one key conclusion: you can have a big dream, but its fruition depends on the perseverance with which you follow a multitude of small steps.

Clear observes that the typical approach is not very effective: we set goals that are too restrictive, we get overwhelmed by the self-imposed militaristic regimen, we get discouraged because we cannot adapt to the announced changes, and we slide down the slippery slope of old habits. The solution is not to jump into the deep end, the author argues, because new (and fragile) habits will drown quickly enough, but to enter the shallow water and move cautiously towards the area where it is safe to swim. Small changes, whether it’s writing a page a day for the book you dream of publishing, running three times a week for better tone, or working an extra five hours a week to supplement the family budget, can bring us closer and more realistically to our desired goals.

Small progress keeps us motivated, especially since breaking bad habits and forming good ones takes more time than we’d like to admit at first.

Time works for us, but at its own pace

The idea that we can form a new habit in just three weeks has long been a popular one, because 21 days is a very reasonable amount of time.

But it’s not necessarily true, as Oliver Burkeman points out in an article for The Guardian in which he explores the origins of this magic number. This brings us to the plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz, who discovered in the 1950s that his patients needed about 21 days to get used to their new look. When he found that his own behavioural changes took at least 21 days, Maltz published his observations in a best-selling book, Psycho-Cybernetics. Maltz’s conclusion was that a period of at least three weeks was required for an old mental image to break down and a new one to emerge.

The problem, as Burkeman notes, is that in the ensuing decades Maltz’s assertion has gone from a mere personal observation to an axiom adopted by the self-help philosophy, without mentioning that this 21-day period is the minimum and not a universal one for forming a new habit.

In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London, found that things are more nuanced when we talk about how quickly we learn a new behaviour.

The results of the study showed that change does not come easily, but requires persistence, motivation and enough time for a behaviour to take hold. On average, subjects took 66 days to form a habit, but there was a wide range of individual times, varying from 18 to 245 days. Repetition is needed to create a mental association between a given situation and a given action, so that when the situation occurs, the behaviour is automatically triggered. As the study authors note, the more repetition involves less conscious decisions, the stronger the habit.

The findings could be particularly confusing for those who rely on willpower, as they could explain away their failure to make the changes they want precisely because they lack the willpower of a champion.

Change and willpower

The place of willpower in the change equation is not a subject on which there is general agreement, even among experts. The role of will cannot be ignored in the effort to change behaviour, but its weight in the overall process varies from one theoretical model to another.

For Joseph Luciani, a well-known clinical psychologist, willpower remains the key factor in the harsh landscape of change. Since stress is the “high-octane fuel of failure” and since all change generates stress, self-discipline is the foundation of success. Willpower should be treated like a muscle that is strengthened by exercise, and the emotional discomfort of change should be seen as a fair, temporary price to pay in the process of becoming a better person.

We are inclined to think that some people are endowed with very large reserves of willpower, and our failures convince us that we do not belong to this blessed elite. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister, co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, says that while some may have better genes, in the long run it is how much (but especially under what conditions) you exercise your willpower that matters.

In fact, the discussion should not be in quantitative terms—how strong the will is—but in terms of effectiveness. Starting from the premise that willpower is a limited resource, Baumeister believes that success is a matter of managing it properly. He cites research showing that “people with good self-control actually spend less time resisting desires than other people because they avoid problem situations and cultivate good habits.”

It’s less about heroism and more about recognising that good habits, formed through small but constant effort, preserve our willpower. Completing a project on time at the cost of a sleepless night is a willpower effort, the psychologist notes, but it is also a waste of volitional reserves. People with good self-control develop work and study habits that enable them to meet deadlines without wasting energy.

The will gets tired when it’s forced to make decisions all the time, argues Baumeister. That’s why trying to make several competing decisions is a sure way of giving up halfway through. Pre-commitment is a useful working tool in that it protects the will from the wear and tear of frequent choices. For example, a predetermined diet or an automatic savings plan that transfers a percentage of salary into a savings account can make it easier to stick to resolutions without exposing the person to the stress of making decisions each time.

“We’ve always thought—and I still do—that the value of a habit is you don’t have to think about it. It frees up your brain to do other things,” says Ann Graybiel, a researcher at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

The problem with New Year’s resolutions is really the problem with life itself: we “value the pleasures of the present more than the satisfactions of the future,” writes David DeSteno, professor of psychology at Northeastern University. On the one hand, we are subject to this constant temptation; on the other, we are besieged by books that teach us how to train our self-control through willpower. But if willpower is the key factor in changing behaviour, why do we choose chocolate over apples, and why do we spend money on impulse purchases instead of putting it into a savings account, asks DeSteno, challenging the classic paradigm of self-control. Not only does willpower weaken when it’s at the centre of our strategy, but the way we view change is more like self-flagellation as long as the mind is forced to fight a war of attrition with itself.

Looking at the actions we do automatically, from brushing our teeth to putting on our seatbelts, James Clear wonders if the easiest way to form a new habit is to make small changes that the brain can quickly learn and thus automate. The American author says this is illustrated by a quote from Brian Fogg, founder and director of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab: “If you plant the right seed in the right spot, it will grow without further coaxing.”

Change is (also) an environment issue

The environment in which a habit is planted is as important as its nature, according to an article by journalist Alix Spiegel, who looks at how US soldiers in Vietnam dealt with their heroin addiction.

In response to a problem of alarming proportions—in the 1970s, about 15% of US soldiers in Vietnam were using heroin—the government set up a prevention and rehabilitation programme, and monitored the soldiers’ situation even after they returned home.

Lee Robins, the psychiatric researcher involved in the programme, found that the rate of recovery from addiction on return was incredible: 95% of heroin users did not relapse on their return to the US. The results were so at odds with the information and perceptions of heroin users (it was believed that once addicted they were doomed to certain death; the reality is different) that it was initially thought that the study was politically motivated.

In fact, the research at least partially disproved the theory of scientists in the 1960s and 1980s that behaviour change comes from changing goals and desires, says Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California. This paradigm is reductionist, points out David Neal, an assistant professor at the same university. It’s possible to change the desires and intentions of someone who wants to give up an ingrained behaviour, but if it’s been repeated frequently, the change will be limited to the level of intention.

Our environment shapes (or even dictates) our actions more than we realise, says Neal, citing the example of smokers, for whom the sight of where they smoke usually creates a strong desire to light up. “About 45 percent of what people do every day is in the same environment and is repeated,” says David Neal.

The lack of recidivism among US soldiers was due precisely to the removal of the environment in which the addiction was produced, comments Wood, who argues that the disruption of the habitual environment contributes to the cessation of inappropriate behaviour. Even small changes that have the power to make the unwanted habit inconvenient—such as eating ice cream with the non-dominant hand—can be helpful, precisely because they break a pattern and give the mind time to decide whether it really wants to engage in the action.

The environment in which we leave our mark also leaves its mark on us, so any adjustments to it are welcome (whether it’s emptying the fridge of the food we’ve been meaning to give up, or installing filters on our computers so we’re not tempted by porn sites), as long as they create an environment that is more conducive to the changes we want to make.

While the tension between who we are and what we do at any given moment, and who we want to become, creates the discomfort that leads us down the path of change, making resolutions can act as a valve, releasing the pressure of guilt. But the good feeling that comes with commitment can be toxic if it remains a smokescreen behind which we allow ingrained habits to guide us.

As Alison Bruzek puts it in her article “How Food Shopping Can Turn New Year’s Resolutions Into ‘Res-Illusions,'” you can end up sabotaging your goals. The photo accompanying the article sums up the results of a study that tracked the contents of shopping bags before and after the holidays. The two bags look surprisingly similar, although the second is slightly fuller.

Thanks to New Year’s resolutions, the proportion of healthy food on families’ shopping lists has increased—a commendable choice, if it weren’t for the diametrically opposed choices. The survey data showed that food spending during the festive season was 15% higher than the rest of the year, with 75% of the extra spending being allocated to less healthy foods. After the winter holidays, healthy food sales increased by 29.4% compared to the baseline and 18.9% compared to the holiday season. You could say it’s a victory for healthy food, but the truth is that sales of unhealthy food remained at the same level as during the festive season—and calories were on an upward trajectory, outpacing holiday food purchases by 9.3%.

Lizzy Pope, a nutritionist at the University of Vermont, sums up the study’s conclusion: buying healthy foods becomes a substitute for achieving health goals. Choosing a bag of salad over a box of chocolate can make us feel like we’ve already signed up for the road to success, giving us the impression that we’re working towards our goals when, in Pope’s words, the evidence shows we’re sabotaging them.

Writing down our goals and monitoring how our plan is working in writing can be a useful tool, argues Tommy Newberry in his book Success Is Not an Accident. According to the author, aspirations become goals when they are written down, and keeping a written journal helps to focus on goals, manage change effectively, and easily identify opportunities that align with goals.

“The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another; and his humblest hour is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it,” observes Scottish writer J.M. Barrie.

Faced with the gaps between what we have done well with our lives and what could have been, we can allow ourselves to feel humbled, but not to sink into despondency. In fact, stagnation in self-criticism is the greatest destroyer of efforts to create new habits, according to the theory of psychologist Jessamy Hibberd. He argues that studies show a correlation between self-criticism and decreased motivation and self-control. So the springboard to real success is to be kind and supportive to yourself, as you would to a friend, especially when you have just experienced the taste of defeat.

Old diaries take us far back in time, allowing us to wander through the originals and drafts of eras and lives already lived. As our days become etched in the past, the foray into the diary of our lives becomes a slalom through the open or closed doors of our becoming, through the markings of what we might have been versus what we undoubtedly are. As long as we are alive, we can rewrite key passages of our lives if we remain open to change. Progress, however slow, is better than regression or stagnation. And because in a year’s time we may wish we had started today, the very act of starting may be the beginning of a healthier habit or greater satisfaction.

Carmen Lăiu is an editor of Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.