Failed New Year's Resolutions? It's Not You, It's Your Motivator

For this year's resolutions, toss out your old, failed motivators and choose to enjoy the immediate well-being and energetic benefits that self-care brings.
12/30/2015 11:10am ET | Updated December 30, 2016
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Every year, around mid-February, I start getting calls from new clients who feel fat, out of shape, guilty about slacking, and angry that this is the tenth or twentieth year their New Year's resolution to lose weight and get in shape has failed miserably. They are demoralized, wondering what's wrong with them. Some say they enjoyed running for the first minute or so, some simply hate the other people at the gym or the way sweating makes them feel; most tell me that they just have too much do and can't fit it in any more -- even though they wish they could.

I feel for all of them, because it's not their fault: they've learned to create resolutions in a system that sets most up to fail. Whether our reason is the New Year, the onset of swimsuit weather, or the urging of health practitioners, most of us are driven to change our behavior by faulty motivators. If we are motivated to lose weight, get in shape, or even improve our health, our chances of sticking with our chosen program for more than a few weeks are dismal.

That's right. It's not you; it's your motivator.

Research in behavioral economics (broadly, the study of psychological factors on decision making) suggests that smaller, immediate rewards (such as more energy or improved mood) are more motivating than larger rewards we have to wait to receive (such as avoiding a disease). The promise of future health benefits, however wonderful, are too abstract to overcome inertia and compete with the loud and unending demands of crammed to-do lists.

Yeah, but... Shouldn't you really be exercising for your health? In an ideal world, sure. But even though better health is noble objective, it's not a potent motivational force for many.

As a student, I was shocked into my current career as a motivation scientist by an exercise study I conducted involving recovered cancer patients. They all thoroughly enjoyed participating, and knew that exercise was good for their health. Yet after their commitment to our study ended, they stopped exercising. They cited scheduling conflicts -- work deadlines, commitment to their kids, aging parents. Even for cancer survivors -- a group we might think should be hyper-focused on achieving and maintaining "health" -- this motivator didn't make the cut when they returned to life outside the lab. In fact, studies show that even the elderly and chronically ill are more motivated by feeling and functioning better than better health!

Vague promises of future rewards like "health," "weight loss," or "fitness" may get us started; but they are not compelling enough to keep most of us moving toward them. And (this may come as a great relief) science has shown that willpower can only take us so far before it runs out.

So what does work?

A shift in motivation away from feeling like you "should" to feeling that you "want" to can make all the difference. In a University of Michigan study, participants who reported that their reason for exercising was to enhance their daily quality of life -- to make themselves feel better every day--exercised 20 percent more over one year compared to participants with health-related goals, and 34 percent more than those whose goal was to lose weight.

This is not rocket science. If it helps us feels good, we'll do it -- we're wired that way. Kent Berridge's research on the neuroscience of reward would suggest that once we learn a positive effect from doing a behavior, we will keep wanting it, even unconsciously.

Your reason for adopting a new self-care behavior like exercise is everything when it comes to sticking with that New Year's resolution. Ironically, when you reframe your motivation away from "future health" to "enjoying the immediate rewards," you are more likely to achieve health and enjoy it for years to come. For this year's resolutions, toss out your old, failed motivators and choose to enjoy the immediate well-being and energetic benefits that self-care brings.

If these ideas resonate with you and you want to evaluate your resolutions for 2016, I developed a free quiz that will give you a personalized report about how likely your resolutions are to stick this year.