You’re going to get fit, save more money and drink less booze.
But when the clock strikes midnight, do you actually commit?
New Year’s resolutions are easy to make and notoriously difficult to follow through on. According to one Carleton University professor, there’s an easy way to explain it — cultural procrastination. It’s a theory that New Year’s resolutions are rooted in themselves “culturally prescribed procrastination,” meaning we’re culturally primed to procrastinate by making a resolution for a future date, instead of committing now, said Tim Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton and the author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change.
But that doesn’t mean you should throw out your goals.
The Toronto Star spoke with Pychyl about why we procrastinate and how to give yourself a better shot at New Year’s resolution success. (Hint: it involves planning for success, preparing for disappointment and forgiving yourself for failure.)
What is cultural procrastination?
We always have good intentions that we don’t follow through on. That’s what procrastination is — the gap between intention and action. When you look at New Year’s, by definition, you’re making your intention to start at least days from now, if not weeks or months from now. That gap between intention and action is why I call it culturally prescribed procrastination. Because if you recognize, for example, that you should get more fit, you should change your diet or you should quit smoking, there’s nothing like a good intention now where no action is required to make you feel good. If you recognize these things, then why aren’t you asking yourself the question, ‘What can I do right now to make that change?’ That’s why New Year’s resolutions by definition have an element of procrastination to them.
What are some other examples of cultural procrastination?
That’s the biggest one. There’s always been this notion of a rebirth, hope springing eternal, a point where we get to start afresh. That’s why New Year’s, on the one hand, has a lot of virtue attached to it, and on the other hand, can be used in a backhanded way to perpetuate one’s own procrastination.
So why do we do this — procrastinate?
(Laughs) Procrastination is an emotion-focused coping strategy. That’s why New Year’s resolutions are so perfect for this because it’s a hedonic thing. We want to feel good now. When we procrastinate, that’s exactly what we get. We’re facing something we don’t want to do and it’s a mood repair, an immediate mood repair. So I’m looking at myself and I’m thinking, ‘My pants are tight. I should lose a few pounds.’ But the last thing you want to do is exercise so you make the intention for the future, which makes you feel good because you think, ‘Gee, I’m the kind of person who makes these intentions.’ Why do we engage in this? Because it makes us feel good now with no costs.
Philosophically, if you have resolve, you do it. It’s not a weak intention — you do it. When we call New Year’s resolutions “resolutions,” the fact is very few of them are resolutions. There’s no resolve attached to them at all. Most of them are what you might call anemic intentions, they’re so poorly defined that they have no force to them.
How should someone approach New Year’s resolutions? Should we scrap them?
No. I think hope and the notion of starting again are very important. Say you do intend to do this in the New Year, then move away from these general, vague, anemic intentions to very specific implementation intentions. You also have to be prepared to the negative emotions Jan. 2. That’s huge — you are not going to feel like it in the New Year. Just get started — that’s my big mantra. Quite important too, is you have to have some self-compassion, particularly self-forgiveness. We’ve done a study that shows procrastinators that forgive themselves after procrastinating are less likely to procrastinate in the future. When we procrastinate, if we don’t forgive ourselves, the motivation is to avoid.
Yes. There’s no upside at all.
I do. I made a New Year’s resolution last year to save money and I did. As much as I diss it and say, ‘We could make the change today,’ I think there’s a powerful notion of, ‘This is another year in my life.’ There’s only one thing you and I will definitely run out of — and that’s time.