Abandon all hope

"Under-promise, over-deliver" the rule for New Year's resolution success

Date published: 2008-02-25 9:14:17 AM

If you’re hoping to make a change this New Year’s—whether it be to lose weight, get in shape, save money, or start composting—just don’t hope for too much. Janet Polivy, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, has found that, with resolutions, shooting for the stars will get you nowhere.

“At New Year’s, people are ready to take control of their lives and they think big,” says Polivy. “They want to lose 50 pounds or quit smoking ,and they gravitate to programs that promise fast results.”

But, while crash diets and intense exercise are the heart of many well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions, having unrealistic expectations is dangerous when it comes to self-change, according to Polivy.

“People ask, ‘What’s the big deal if you hope for something that you can’t possibly achieve?’,” she says. “But our research shows that when you hope for more than is possible, you give up on things that are actually working.”

For example, if your goal is to lose 30 pounds in 30 days and you only lose five, you feel defeated and give up altogether, says Polivy. People ignore the fact that they’re actually making progress.

And, strangely enough, Polivy finds that people don’t learn from past mistakes. The next year, they’re ready to tackle the same resolution again. And if they fail, they’ll do it again, and again and again.
“On average, people make the same resolution at least five times before they give up entirely,” says Polivy. “Each year, they make the same resolution, instead of setting goals that are actually possible.”
So, what’s a sure-fire way to ensure that you won't be making—and breaking—the same resolution again this new year?
According to Polivy, don’t give up on your dreams, but set realistic goals.
“If your goal is to lose five pounds in a month and you succeed, you’re more willing to try to lose another five pounds,” she says. ”If you break things up into smaller steps, you’re more likely to succeed.”
Janet Polivy’s research on false hope is supported by SSHRC’s Standard Research Grants program.