The secret to resolutions

Men are better than women at fulfilling New Year’s resolutions and goal-setting. Richard Fitzpatrick finds out why

Men tend to be better than women at fulfilling New Year’s resolutions. According to a study by Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, who followed 2,000 people who made a two-week resolution, only 30% of women succeeded, compared with 37% of men. Men, it seems, are a bit better at goal-setting.

Holding to your guns with a New Year’s resolution — whether it’s losing weight or giving up the dreaded weed — for either sex ain’t easy. In the book, Willpower, which was written by Roy F Baumeister, the authors cited a survey of more than one million people from around the world who were asked to rank their greatest personal strength from a list of 24 qualities, including self-control, bravery, modesty, kindness.

Self-control came last. And when people were asked about their failings, self-control came top of the pile.

Wiseman says there are several motivational myths peddled by self-help types which prevent people from taking control of their lives.

“For example, those who adopted a celebrity role model, perhaps putting a picture of Elle Macpherson or Richard Branson on their fridge door, did not tend to drop that all-important clothing size, or achieve their business ambitions. Similarly, those relying on will power, using thought suppression to erase images of cream cakes and chocolate sundaes from their mind, focusing on the bad things that would happen if they didn’t achieve their goals, or spending their time daydreaming were also wasting their time.”

One of Wiseman’s recommendations is to just make the one New Year’s resolution. Humans only have a finite amount of willpower. So if you’ve a sweet tooth and you expend, say, a lot of energy in the morning avoiding eating a chocolate croissant with your coffee, it will be harder for you to resist taking a desert with your lunch at midday. It will also be harder for you to be civil to your annoying colleague or to go for a jog of a cold January evening, as we draw on the same reserves of willpower for all our tasks.

Those people who make on-the-spot resolutions on New Year’s Eve tend to be doomed to failure as well. The impulse resolution is unlikely to be genuinely motivated or based on what’s on your mind at that particular moment, as opposed to something that you’ve thought about and planned. Planning, of course, is essential.

“The author Zig Ziglar once famously remarked that people tend not to wander around and then suddenly find themselves at the top of Mount Everest,” says Wiseman. “Likewise, those moving aimlessly through life are unlikely to end up suddenly starting a new business, or losing a significant amount of weight. I found successful participants broke their overall goal into a series of sub-goals, and thereby created a step-by-step process that helped remove the fear and hesitation often associated with trying to achieve a major life change.

“These plans were especially powerful when the sub-goals were concrete, measurable, and time-based. Whereas successful and unsuccessful participants might have stated that their aim was to find a new job, it was the successful people who quickly went on to describe how they intended to rewrite their résumé in week one, and then apply for one new job every two weeks for the next six months. Similarly, although many people said that they aimed to enjoy life more, it was the successful ones who explained how they intended to spend two evenings each week with friends, and visit one new country each year.”

Wiseman also cautions against revisiting old (failed) resolutions. He suggests trying something new or approach an old bugbear in a new way. For instance, instead of vowing to lose, say, two stone this year, make a plan to exercise more.

Having the right, positive mindset is critical as well. If you’re looking for a new job, it’s better to reflect on the benefits of finding more fulfilling work rather than dwelling on the thought that failure will leave you trapped and unhappy. Or if you’re trying to shed some pounds, it will help if you think about how good it will feel to drop a size rather than fretting over your appearance if you fail. It’s also important to tell people about your resolution.

“Telling others about your aims also helps you achieve them, in part, because friends and family often provide much needed support when the going gets tough,” says Wiseman. “In fact, some research suggests that having friends at your side makes life seem easier. In a series of studies carried out by Simone Schnall from the University of Plymouth, people were taken to the bottom of a hill and asked to estimate how steep it was and therefore how difficult it would be to climb. When accompanied by a friend, their estimates were around 15% lower than when they were on their own, and even just thinking about a friend when looking at the hill made it seem far more surmountable.”

Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot is published by Pan Macmillan.

Neil Delamere performs at the University Concert Hall, Limerick, Saturday, 26 January and the Cork Opera House, Saturday, 9 March.

Claudia Carroll’s A Very Accidental Love Story is published by Avon Books.

My disastrous New Year’s Resolutions

It would be difficult to think of a New Year’s resolution that foundered as badly as Kim Kardashian’s one for 2011. The American reality TV star said she wanted “to be single my whole year of being 30”. By the end of the year, she had married (and divorced) basketball player Kris Humphries.

The Irish novelist Claudia Carroll says she struggled for years to kick smoking. “Loads of years I’d go, ‘I’m definitely giving them up this year,’ but New Year’s Eve is a bad time to make that resolution because January is so hard anyway. You need some little crutch to get you through. Also at the time I was sharing a house with my friend who was a very heavy smoker, and I was acting. I was in Fair City and I’d say 90 percent of the cast were smokers. It made it very difficult when you’re surrounded by it day and night. You’d go into a dressing room and there’d be two other people who were smokers, and you’d think, ‘Ah, to hell. Just give me one,’ before you know where you are, you’re back on them again.”

In one of Neil Delamere’s fitness drives, he tried his hand at a popular Indian exercise for a New Year’s resolution. “I decided one year that I was going to take up yoga and I tried Bikram yoga,” he says. “They heat a room to 40 degrees centigrade and you exercise for 90 minutes. Somebody thought that was a good idea for Irish people. We’ve seen Irish people exercise for 90 minutes in 40 degrees heat before. It was in the 1994 World Cup and Steve Staunton nearly died. There was a puddle left with freckles floating on the top of it. Bikram yoga was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. It was horrible — having to peel various bits of your male appendage off your leg, which basically sounded like taking Sellotape off a roll. I went once. I really got a very good stretch. I thought that would do me for the year.”


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