WORDS | Rabeah Zafrullah
For people of all ages, races and places around the world, making resolutions at the start of each year is almost second nature. The same goes with giving up on them after an incredibly short period of time, ranging from a couple of hours, to more than a month for those with an iron will. Everyone knows that resolutions are as difficult to keep as they are easy to make, but what most people don’t know is that the worldwide tradition has a wealth of mythological back story.
The ritual of making resolutions started almost 4,000 years ago with the Babylonians. The people made them to please the gods they worshipped, and believed that breaking their resolutions would put them out of favour with the gods. The Babylonians actually made their resolutions in spring, which was around March, because they believed the year renewed along with the plants. They associated their resolutions with this renewal and with turning over a new leaf in their lives, which is actually one of the motivating psychological effects that the New Year’s ritual has.
It was the ancient Romans who changed the timings of resolution-making to the beginning of January, a month they named after the double-faced deity, Janus. They believed January marked the start of a New Year because Janus was not only the god of beginnings and endings, but also because one of his faces looked into the past year, and the other into the approaching one. As a result, the Romans directed their resolutions towards him, and although they probably didn’t pledge to get gym memberships and study harder for exams, they did promise to let go of bad habits and practice better behaviour with an intention similar to that of the Babylonians – ringing goodwill from Janus.
Snap back to the current day, where we would all be dying of starvation without the benevolence of Janus because our resolution to eat less cheesecake this year, lasted less than a week. While everyone still makes resolutions for their own benefit, the lack of immediate reward, or punishment for breaking them, might be a factor in explaining why most of them are left incomplete. Pair that with the fact that most people make either too many resolutions in one go, or that they think of them the wrong way, it’s no surprise that over 88 per cent of resolutions end in failure, and it’s likely that yours will too. Unless, of course, you happen to change the way you make your resolutions entirely. Research has shown that most resolutions tend to be goal orientated, such as ‘lose 15 pounds’, ‘spend less time on the internet’, or ‘read more books’. While these do describe the results that you are aiming for, they are unlikely to be achieved. A looming difficult-sounding goal isn’t going to inspire anyone to change the habits they have formed over their lives, but snipping up those hard to swallow goals, into bite sized activities, might. It’s easier to follow a list of things to do, rather than things to achieve, which is why planning to eat some fruit instead of that cheesecake each day is more likely to succeed than planning to go on a diet.
Another way of ensuring your victory is to focus on one objective at a time. Spacing out resolutions over the year have been proven psychologically, and biologically, to work better, and puts less strain on your brain. Will-power is much like a muscle in that if it is feeble, and over-worked, it will most likely give out under the pressure. Planning to quit smoking, as well as going on a run for two hours every day, while simultaneously learning how to play the ukulele, is the definition of over-working your will-power. The part of the brain that manages will-power, the prefrontal cortex, also happens to be the portion that keeps us focused.
Concentrating on too many objectives at once means that your brain will lack the energy needed to have enough will-power to see them through. It is much more beneficial to assign each objective you’ve made to different sections of the year, so that not only will you have the will-power to see each one through, but the first objective will already be achieved and become habitual by the time the next is put into motion. Exercising your will-power and focus is crucial for success, as is establishing a balance between the two. Improving your will-power has also been shown to have positive effects on other aspects of your life, and also makes it easier to get rid of bad habits and start good ones, which is the goal of most resolutions. Bad habits are impossibly hard to break. Most of them have instant reward factors that are hard to replicate with better habits. But it can be done. All habits, good or bad, have three parts, cue, routine and reward. The trick to replacing a bad habit with a good one is to keep the same cue and reward and change the routine. Identifying the cue and reward can often be difficult, but once achieved, turning the reward into a craving is essential. Studies have shown that craving the reward is what drives the action into becoming a habit.
Whether or not your resolutions have survived until now is not the question (because the answer is most likely a resounding ‘no’). The question is whether you are going to wait until next year to revive them again for a week, or if you are going to ‘pull a Mulan’ and get down to business right now. While it may take some time and effort to work up to those life-long ambitions, you can definitely get started on the short-term goals that you’ve set for yourself, which you never really thought you’d be able to accomplish. And then after all that effort, you can reward yourself with some well-deserved cheesecake!