07 Jan Bo: Why are new years resolutions so easy to break?
At the beginning of every new year, many of us make lofty resolutions: exercise more, eat healthier, get organized, spend more time with loved ones. Sounds great! But we all know that it doesn’t stick. New years resolutions are abandoned, on average, after 36 days. How many New Year’s resolutions do all of us have from past years which were abandoned at some point before now? How many of us make the same resolution every year?
The problem is, most of our behavior is habitual—we live much of life on auto-pilot. And no matter how resolute we are, that alone does not break us out of such a habit. We simply don’t think about eating junky food, not exercising, ignoring our families—those are just how we automatically live life.
A psychology professor at USC conducted an experiment in which he gave popcorn to people entering a movie theater. Some participants received fresh popcorn, some received stale, week-old popcorn. The participants who did not normally eat popcorn at movies ate the fresh popcorn but not the stale popcorn. Those who did normally eat popcorn while watching movies, on the other hand, ate both kinds of popcorn even though they reported not liking the taste of the stale popcorn. They were on autopilot, unthinkingly eating stale popcorn.
In the torah, Moses approaches Pharoah eleven times (once before the plagues, plus the ten plagues) asking him to set the Jewish people free. After a number of devastating plagues, Pharoah agrees. But then God hardens Pharoah’s heart and he changes his mind.
It is a troubling passage: how is it just for God to take away Pharoah’s free will, and then punish him for his actions?
Perhaps Pharoah became so entrenched in his ways that he was unable to change them even though he tried. Perhaps like so many who make and break resolutions, he found himself naturally drawn back to his old habits, unable to “stick to” his resolution.
Like Pharoah, we lose our free will once habits become engrained. We no longer think about our actions, we neglect our bodies, neglect each other, and eat disgusting popcorn, just because we are used to doing so.
Instead of a new year’s resolution embracing a completely different way of life, we would be better to create consistent, small changes, so we get used to the new pattern, creating new habits.
Don’t try to eat healthy, make a habit of eating a fruit or vegetable at every meal, and save dessert for Shabbat.
Don’t try to get in shape, make a habit of walking every day at a fixed time.
Don’t try to be a nicer person; make a habit of greeting your loved ones every morning with a smile and a kiss.
Don’t try to get organized; make a habit of clearing off your desk every evening before dinner.
I hope you have a wonderful new year, and that you are able to fulfill your highest aspirations for the year.
Please note, this week’s Shabbat services have been postponed to Jan 22nd; save the date!