If we want something badly, how is it possible that we fail to achieve it time and again? And can we do things to give New Year's resolutions better chances of being kept? A guide to help you to keep your promises.
It's that time of the year again - we promise ourselves to lose weight, stop drinking, adopt a healthier lifestyle, go to the gym, stop smoking, become vegan or even just read more books.
However, these resolutions tend to fade away very quickly, and again we find ourselves staying at home instead of jogging in the park, and having one last cigarette in a bar because we can't have a beer without it.
"I had told myself so many times that I had to quit smoking, but it was only when I got pregnant that I actually stopped," says Diana Schmidt, a mother of two from the German city of Cologne.
"Once I realized I had responsibility for another human being, it made me feel like I was forcing something very unhealthy - even dangerous - on someone who could not resist, and that gave me the strength to continue."
The importance of ceremony
According to clinical psychologist Yaki Sagy, Schmidt's experience is not very unusual, and can perhaps even teach us a lesson. "People's declarations are some sort of a ceremony they make for themselves, and that ceremony can actually change the person in a way," he says.
"Think about the moment somebody says 'I do' at a wedding. This declaration doesn't alter the bride or the groom physically, but mentally something has changed." And that, according to him, is one of the key points in making a resolution that will last.
"Most of these date-related declarations belong to the sphere of restraint and continence. Many of them involve some sort of a boundary, like refraining from certain foods, habits or behaviors."
According to Sagy, this has to do with the transition from a childish behavior to an adult-like one. "A wedding, for instance, puts a limit to sexual encounters with others. So the ceremony itself creates a change in the inner stances of the people involved."
This doesn't mean that married couples cannot cheat on one another, but as Sagy explains, the ceremony has a binding dimension "in the sense that if it doesn't work out, it will generate more guilt."
So, according to this reasoning, the ceremony Schmidt created for herself has helped her keep her promise to quit smoking.
Making decisions public
But do we really need the birth of a baby or another extremely important event in life such as a wedding in order to be able to reach our goals? Are we really incapable of keeping them otherwise?
Sagy says this assumption is not too far from the truth.
"I think there is less of a chance that people will cheat on their spouses, for example, after an event with 500 guests who saw them and heard their vows, than after a private decision that they are a couple," he says.
"It doesn't mean that this is the reason why they keep the relationship, but it means that they wanted to create a reality in which they are taking their decision and handing it in to a culture bigger than the sum of its parts, and saying out loud that they are adopting its norms."
Satisfying - but easy to break
A violated personal declaration is very different from a violation of the law, mainly in the guilt feelings it generates. New Year's resolutions differ from laws in the sense that one chooses to actively take a decision one didn't have to take and that was not dictated by anyone or anything.
What the law does instead is to force people to obey it, thus obviating the inner struggle they might have. It determines that something is strictly forbidden per se, while personal declarations are based on an inner evaluation of the pros and cons of a particular behavior.
For 30-year-old Adam Rosenberg, for example, driving above the speed limit in his homeland of Israel generates anything but guilt. "The usual speed limit here is 90kph (about 56mph), which is completely ridiculous. So I usually drive faster, and here and there I'm taking the risk of getting a fine."
With private decisions, Sagy says, the situation is entirely different. "There is no law that can prohibit me from eating unhealthy food, or that can tell me I'm not allowed to cheat," he says. "The law as we know it does not interfere with these decisions - so there are no formal felonies, only an inner determination."
And it's exactly this characteristic which constitutes the weakest - and the strongest - point of our resolutions. They are more challenging to follow, but also way more satisfying when kept. The sanctions are internal as well, in the shape of blame, embarrassment or simply a huge disappointment on our own part.
Exchange of pleasures
"I've been trying to go vegan for months now, but every time I find another dairy product I simply cannot resist," 16-year-old Zoe, a high school student from Tel Aviv, told DW. "I know it's the right thing to do, and I can totally identify with the cause, but I can't bring myself to a complete abstinence."
For Sagy, this is exactly the difference between an external law and an internal promise: "There's a big difference between people who grew up in a vegan home and people who decide that the suffering of animals disturbs them and therefore they will stop consuming animal products. Of course the latter is more difficult to follow."
But why do people find it so hard to keep these promises? They know they want to reach the final goal, yet they find the way there extremely difficult.
Sagy may have an answer to this question, too.
"People have great difficulty giving up pleasures. And they find it even harder to waive them in exchange for entering a symbolic social system, as the gain is not always immediately apparent."
A good example, he says, is teaching children to stop eating with their hands. "We tell them to start using a knife and fork, so they have to give up a certain pleasure. And what do they get in return? A place in the grown-ups' society. We compliment them, telling them that they are mature, that they are 'big' boys or girls, and this becomes the new pleasure."
But reality shows that many of us usually prefer not to go to the gym, to eat whatever we want, to have free sexual encounters and to drive above the speed limit. So we don't seem very willing, as a rule, to give up pleasures in return for something less immediate.
Make it work
So, to sum up, what can we do to increase the chances that our good intentions become reality?
Because New Year's resolutions - like many other private decisions - do not rely on the law, they need some other kind of publicity in order to count as serious. "The act of declaration needs witnesses," Sagy explains. "If there are no witnesses to my declaration, in a way it doesn't exist."
The importance of having witnesses stems partly from the future feeling of shame if the resolution is violated, but also from the declaration's visibility. When we swathe our decisions in the collective time everybody knows, we are anchoring our private declarations in the cultural sphere. According to Sagy, a declaration of this kind has lower chances of failing.
"When people tell themselves they will start a diet in two days, it has no collective resonance. But if they promise to start a diet on the first day of the New Year, their statement has more volume. Most people wouldn't say they will quit smoking in two hours. They will say that they will quit smoking the moment a new month starts. They will declare it in a way that generates some sort of evidence or social importance."
According to Sagy, it's also a question of the price one is willing or not willing to pay.
"The important thing is the inner stance when making the declaration. How big is our willingness to give up pleasures? A person who is not willing to pay any price is also likely to violate his or her resolution. Ultimately we are talking about relinquishing comfort and our willingness to do that for something else we want," he says.