“Most of us assume that self-control is largely a character issue, and that we would follow through on our New Year’s resolutions if only we had a bit more discipline. But this research suggests that willpower itself is inherently limited, and that our January promises fail in large part because the brain wasn’t built for success.”

Did you make New Year’s resolutions this year? Most of us do, but more often than not, after the initial excitement of the new year wanes, so does our commitment to the resolutions we made just weeks earlier.

Well, you are not alone!

The failure rate for New Year’s resolutions ranges up to 88%.  In other words, only 12% of people who make January resolutions actually accomplish those goals by the end of the year.

We tend to blame ourselves but there are good reasons why change is so hard, and it’s not some inherent character flaw like laziness, or lack of discipline.

Why Are Resolutions so Hard to Keep?

In 2018, I went on a diet – based on a book called “Bright Line Eating.”  One of its foundational rules was based on the premise that willpower is a finite resource.  The book radically suggested that the program would be more effective if I didn’t exercise during the first few weeks.  To my surprise, this was an effective strategy as I began to lose weight more rapidly than I had before.  It seemed to prove that willpower was indeed a finite resource.  Because I focused on one goal – eating right to lose weight (rather than exercising to lose weight), it seemed that the program was more successful.

Sometimes we list general resolutions and try to work on them all equally, for example, if my resolutions include that I want to eat better, lose weight, exercise more, sleep and relax more, these traditional resolutions may be unsuccessful.

First of all, they tend to be much too vague. Goals like “Exercise more” or “get more sleep” are just too broad and overwhelming.

Second, the things we think we “should” do often don’t really resonate at a deeper level. Anything you decide to change because it’s generally accepted as “right” isn’t likely to work for you. Trying to force yourself to do something that you’re not yet prepared to do is setting yourself up for failure.

Third, along with being too general, deciding that you will eat more healthfully, stop smoking, drink less alcohol, and get more sleep is far too much all at once.

“A tired brain, preoccupied with its problems, is going to struggle to resist what it wants, even when what it wants isn’t what we need.”

Beyond those basics, science has discovered that willpower is an extremely limited resource.

Clearly, we need to find a different way to meet our goals and motivate change.

Nurture the Smallest Changes—7 Steps to Make Your Resolutions Stick

Goal-achievement programs often talk about setting really big goals. While it’s great to dream big, the way to achieve big is to start small.  So, let’s say that this year you want to become certified in your field.  The best way to succeed is to start with smaller goals.

1) Choose Only One. Our prefrontal cortex, responsible for willpower, is also in charge of keeping us focused, handling short-term memory, and solving abstract problems. Research shows that asking it to handle a major behavior/habit change like drinking less wine or exercising more is just too much. Of course, we are used to thinking expansively about goals, so it may feel weird to pick just one. The other advantage to choosing just one habit to change is that you can identify the one that you are truly inclined to work on.

2) Take Teeny, Tiny Steps. Make your new habit really, really small, ideally something you can accomplish in about a minute. For example, if you want to exercise more by going to the gym, start by putting your exercise clothes out the night before. Or if your exercise goal is to run regularly, start by just putting your running shoes on in the morning. This step needs to be so small that you might think it’s insignificant.

BJ Fogg’s behavior research lab at Stanford has studied this with thousands of people over 10 years. He suggests starting your new exercise routine by doing just two push-ups, or walking around the block just before or after you eat lunch.

For our certification goal, this can mean simply buying the book.  If you are studying for your CPL, RPL or RL exams (Certified Professional Landman, Registered Professional Landmen, Registered Landman), begin by purchasing the study guide from the AAPL.  You may note, as is true in the other land profession fields, years of experience are required just to be eligible to take the exam.  By buying the book, this gives you the information you need to determine whether or not you are eligible, and for which credential.

3) Tie it to Another Habit. If you can trigger your new behavior off of an existing habit, your brain doesn’t have to work as hard. For example, if you do your two push-ups after you brush your teeth, it’s much easier to remember. And there are only two, so it doesn’t take much of your time. If you choose walking at lunch, you are triggering the action on eating lunch. An old trick to increase mindfulness is to pause when the phone rings, do two deep breaths, and then answer it.  Fogg, who refers to these as either triggers or anchors, has lots of suggestions, including things that may not even have occurred to you, here.  For exam preparation, set aside some time, at the same time of day (lunchtime is good), and plan to read just two pages in the prep book, or set a timer for 10 minutes. Or, sign up for a class through Land Training as a study prep course.

4) Celebrate NOW. When you do your two push-ups after brushing your teeth, or read your two pages in the study guide, that’s a win! Don’t wait for some future achievement — let yourself feel successful right now, and praise yourself for doing what you set out to do. The positive emotion generated by this increases the chances that you will continue your new behavior.  With every step toward achieving your goal, find a way to celebrate yourself!

5) Write it Down, Tell Friends and Family. Writing down your goal helps to make it more real. Getting other people involved can help in several ways, including making you more accountable and adding to your positive reinforcement by cheering your successes.

6) Stick With It.  Maintain your very small habit for longer than you think is necessary. It may sound counter-intuitive, but if you push your habit further too fast it’s more likely you’ll drop it. When you get bored with it, and feel like you are seriously ready for more push-ups, give it another week. Then, add only one more push-up.  I’ve seen this happen over and over again with people wanting to pass their certification exams.  They assume it’s a one-and-done success when in reality, it can take months, sometimes up to a year, to have the knowledge and confidence needed to take and pass an exam.  When I was in law school, graduating with 3.5 years of law school under my belt was just the start. Then the intensive studying for the bar exam began.  Most law school graduates signed up for a prep course to help; this meant 30 – 45 days of formal studying before even attempting the bar exam. Even with all that preparation the failure rate for first-time exam takers is high.

7) Some of your attempts may not work the first time.  Like the bar exam, some of the land professional certification exams have high failure rates.  Find out what those rates are and see if you can find a way to beat the odds.  Much of it just involves really sticking to studying, and an exam prep course can go a long way in helping you succeed.  I always advise my students to treat these tests as if they are studying for the bar exam.

8 (Bonus Step!)  Use all available resources.  One of the reasons the land professional certification exams can be intimidating is because of the calculations portions of the course.  I remember when I first started out in this field being terribly intimidated by the math involved in our day-to-day work.  In fact, it wasn’t until I began teaching the material that I realized how easy the math is – it just requires someone to take the time to explain it to you.  For that reason, I’ve created free tutorials of the math involved in all of the land professional exams, including the AAPL exams.

Don’t underestimate the power of very small changes. Instead of wasting your time with gigantic goals and feelings of failure, add tiny habits to your existing routines and experience success.

What tiny habit are you thinking about trying?  I’d like to know, so if you feel like it, email me and fill me in.

For those who want to dig a bit deeper into the willpower issue, this article looks at some of the research.