It’s Easy to Make a Resolution. But How Can We Keep It?

To keep your resolution, you may need to change your environment.

While a new secular year and a new Jewish year have some significant differences (you don’t drink champagne in synagogue, and there’s no sermon to listen to on December 31st), there’s one strong commonality between the two: resolutions. And while losing weight or exercising are the most common resolutions made on January 1st, trying to be a “good person” is third — which is something many of us think about over both the secular and Jewish new year.

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Even more importantly, just like we say the same words on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to ask forgiveness for our failings over the past year, many of us will not follow through on our resolutions for 2016. And in fact, we’re probably just as likely to fail at our resolutions to be kinder or more present for our loved ones as we are to plan to go to the gym every day and skip dessert.

So how can we be a better person this year than we were last year? Are there ways we can be more effective in terms of resolutions?

It’s a little bit like the “Seinfeld” episode where Jerry wants to make a reservation for a rental car. The agent had made the reservation, but had run out of cars. When Jerry says that the point of the reservation is guaranteeing the car will be there, the agent testily responds that he “thinks [he] know[s] why we have reservations.”

“I don’t think you do,” Jerry answers. “You see, you know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation. And that’s really the most important part of the reservation: the holding. Anybody can just take them.”

Similarly, we know how to make a new year’s resolution, we just don’t know how to keep a resolution. And that’s the most important part of the resolution: the keeping. Anybody can just make them.

So what do we do? Well, what we’re really trying to do is change our behavior, and to make it stick. But willpower is finite, exhaustible and fickle. What we should do instead is focus on our environment.

That’s what management consultant Peter Bregman suggests:

It would be lovely to think that we make our own choices and follow through on them, without being too influenced by things around us, but all you need to do is read a little bit of Brian Wansink’s book Mindless Eating to realize just how much our actions are determined by our environment. Brian did a series of fascinating studies that suggest the reasons we eat have little to do with hunger and a tremendous amount to do with the subtle cues that drive us.

For example, if you use a big spoon, you’ll eat more. If you serve yourself on a big plate, you’ll eat more. If you move the small bowl of chocolates on your desk six feet away you’ll eat half as much. If you eat chicken wings and remove the bones from the table, you’ll forget how much you ate and you’ll eat more. If you have a bowl of soup that never gets less than half full, you’ll eat more. And the more people you eat with, the more you’ll eat.

So don’t fight yourself to change your behavior in the midst of the wrong environment; just change the environment. In the case of food, using a salad plate instead of a dinner plate might be all the diet you need.

What’s interesting is that the way we create our environment is by surrounding ourselves with people who share our outlook and perspective. That’s a major reason why Judaism is a communal religion. Just like it’s easier to go to the gym if you and a friend both follow through on going to it, if you join with other people who are aiming to be more compassionate, more just and more present, you’ll more likely to become a better person.

Our brains make the resolution. But our bodies are the ones that keep them. And it’s our friends, our community and our environment that truly change our behavior. As psychologist Tania Lombrozo writes for NPR, “[B]y all means, resolve to be a better person this year. But if you hope to succeed in doing so, you might stop to ask: How can I change my environment to maximize the odds that I’ll act like the person I want to be?”

After all, making a resolution is easy. But following through on it is what brings change.

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