The Mental Math Behind Why Resolutions Fail

It’s that most wonderful time of the year: a week or two after making those New Year’s resolutions. About half of us make resolutions, but by various measures most of us will have abandoned them by the Fourth of July.

You’d think we’d be better at this. After all, we make the same resolutions every year.

Why do we earnestly plan for better behavior but then just as earnestly set aside our plans when it’s time to put them into action? The answer lies in how our brains handle value and time.

Like aggressive loan sharks, our brains heavily discount anything in the future — at about a 50% hit. That is, when we are considering a future outcome it has about half the impact (psychologically) as one that happens in the here and now.

All of those behaviors that seem so good – exercising more, eating less, cutting back on booze, quitting smoking – incur both costs (pain, hassle) and benefits (longer life, fitting into those cool jeans).

When we plan on better behavior, both the costs and benefits are in the future. They’re equally down weighted and so the benefits outweigh the costs.

But when it comes time to engage in them, the costs are in the present while the benefits are in the future. In other words, the benefits look only half as good as they should, but the costs are experienced with full force.

This unequal weighting tips the scales in favor of setting aside our resolutions. And when we do that, we often tell ourselves that we will just skip today and start up again tomorrow. We do that because when we think about getting back on the wagon tomorrow, both the costs and benefits are in the future, discounted 50%, and therefore on equal psychological footing.

Presto – perpetual procrastination and eventual failure of our resolutions.

What strategy might you use to lock in your New Year’s resolution and overcome the problem of steep discounting?

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