Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 September 2020

Why my New Year's resolutions are already failing

Zach Holz says he's worked out why he can stick to his financial goals but not to other targets

The key is to choose goals that don't require too much extra effort or willpower. Getty Images
The key is to choose goals that don't require too much extra effort or willpower. Getty Images

This year I set myself a New Year’s resolution and I am struggling. I think I know why though, which can help all of us make positive changes that stick and become permanent.

This July, I'm moving to China. I was there in December and quickly realised that, unlike the UAE where English is spoken everywhere, in China I need to be able to speak Mandarin. I made a resolution to spend at least 10-15 minutes a day learning the language, and I started with enthusiasm.

After a hard day of teaching, I often don't want to do anything too active with my brain. My day starts at 7am and continues until 4:30pm or 5pm, leaves me pretty exhausted mentally.

As someone who likes to keep life as simple as possible – I'm unmarried with no kids or pets — I should have plenty of time to accomplish these daily resolutions. And for the most part, I have. I've learnt Chinese almost every day, but the will to do it gets harder and harder. My resolve is fading.

This doesn't make me a bad person. It makes me normal. Eighty per cent of New Year's Resolutions fail, according to a US News & World report, and I can understand why it's happening to me. As much as learning Chinese will help me, it's a slow process. I get a little better each day, but not in a noticeable manner; it's a little like losing weight. Learning Chinese is especially hard at the moment because I don't need it right now. I will in six months, but that's future Zach's problem. So instead, my daily language sessions get crowded out by more immediate needs.

After a hard day of teaching, I often don't want to do anything too active with my brain. My day starts at 7am and continues until 4:30pm or 5pm, which leaves me pretty exhausted mentally.

When we're exhausted, our willpower drops precipitously. A research study published by the National Academy of Sciences in 2011, found that the more decisions you make, or the more exhausted you are the less willpower you have. You've seen this with the old rule never to go to the grocery store when you're hungry, because you don't have the willpower to resist all the unhealthy but delicious food around you. That's why the chocolate bars are at the checkout counter, they know that you've just made a whole bunch of decisions and have little willpower to resist at that point. This is why my willpower to learn Chinese is fading. It’s just one more thing to do after a long day.

I have been successful, however, in making other radical lifestyle changes over the past few years. Last year, I completely changed my diet from eating whatever was in front of me to eating a much healthier whole food plant-based diet. I've also taken to exercising much more, about five to seven times a week. Another habit I found easy to adopt was to track my spending by documenting every purchase on my Spending Tracker app, which I've done religiously for four years now. So, why have I found big changes easier to achieve than the little ones?

The diet switch doesn't take any more time and effort. Before, I had to shop, cook and eat. Now I do the same, just with healthier food. I learnt about good nutrition, saw the benefit in my own life in terms of weight loss and other awesome health benefits, and that powers me to do better. And it's not hard, it doesn't take extra willpower.

The exercise switch might be hard for many, so I was surprised I was able to keep it up without much effort. What helped was finding yoga, an activity I can see immediate benefit from in terms of feeling good while I do it, as well as medium and long-term benefits in terms of flexibility and strength.

Tracking my spending, meanwhile, is just a matter of habit stacking. Habit stacking is where you add one desired habit to something you already do. For me, that's when I pay for something, I get out my phone and enter the purchase in the Spending Tracker app. It takes 10 seconds and I am done with it before I leave the counter. Again, it doesn't take extra time or willpower.

So, what can we take from this? How can we make our New Year's resolution's stick? My recommendation is to choose goals that don't take extra effort or willpower and provide immediate benefits as well as long-term gains. Also, habit stack on top of something you're already doing. I'll update you on my progress, particularly with learning Chinese.

Dubai schoolteacher Zach Holz (@HappiestTeach) documents his journey towards financial independence on his personal finance blog The Happiest Teacher

Updated: February 9, 2020 09:22 AM

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