Do you have trouble sticking to your resolutions? Turns out that it really does matter.

Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine had a very interesting cover story, Gary Taubes’s Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?

From a happiness perspective, the bit that caught my eye was about the “compliance effect” or “adherer effect.” It turns out that people who stick to a doctor’s orders – say, by taking a prescription – are different, and healthier, than people who don’t.

In one drug study, a group of men were assigned a drug or a placebo. The men who faithfully took their pills had significantly better outcomes than the men who didn’t – even the men who were only taking a placebo!

The conclusion: a group of people who faithfully adhere to a program that they think healthful (taking vitamins, exercising, eating a better diet) will have a different outcome from a group that doesn’t, for reasons that aren’t altogether clear.

Now, of course, we’d all like to be in the category of “adherers” who can stick to positive programs, but it’s tough to do.

The big question: How do you change yourself from a “non-adhererer” to an “adherer”?

Whenever I meet people who have stuck to a new resolution, I try to figure out how they did it. HOW did she transition to an entirely new career? HOW did he change his parenting style? HOW did they change from a couch-potato couple to a training-for-the-marathon couple? It’s so much easier to see what ought to be done than to do it.

I’ve seen the argument that prodigies in sports, music, chess, etc. don’t really exist, and that exceptional performance is the result of practice.

The most important quality for a prodigy, then, is not innate talent, but a drive to practice.

And so it may be with happiness, health, and many other desiderata. A key element is the ability to STICK to a resolution that would bring about change.

I’ve stumbled on some little tricks that help. For example, when I was trying to develop the habit of exercising, I always exercised on Monday. That got me started on the right foot for the week.

I started keeping my resolutions charts to keep myself constantly reviewing my resolutions and holding myself accountable. (As always, if you want to see a copy, just email me–see left-hand column)

When I was trying to give up my beloved Nutritious Creations chocolate-chip cookies, I decided that I would NEVER, EVER eat one again. As Samuel Johnson said, “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.” If I ate one, I’d be back to two a day. (Okay, sometimes three a day.)

In fact, I’ve found, it’s often easier to do something NEVER or EVERY DAY than a couple of times a week. When a friend said she was having trouble getting herself to post to her blog two or three times a week, I suggested that she post every day. And that helped. I work on the Happiness Project book every single day, even if I just jot down notes for ten minutes, because that’s a habit that helps me actually get some writing done.

The advantage of doing something NEVER or EVERY DAY is that I don’t spend time fussing about when or how often I’m going to do something. I know that I absolutely can’t do it, or that I absolutely must do it.

If you have suggestions for strategies that have made it easier for you to stick to a resolution, please post them. I suspect other people are as interested as I am in how to be a better “adherer.”

I always enjoy checking out Guy Kawasaki’s How To Change the World. He posts on all sorts of topics, almost always interesting.

New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • I suspect there is no magic answer, no magic method. I have been able to continue on the right road (for myself) for long periods, primarily by being willing to start over as often as it takes. But even after faithfully exercising and eating right for years, I have managed to slip to less healthy habits.
    So I never tell anyone I have the answer. I don’t. I just keep starting over.

  • Ella

    I think it depends on how much you need to depart from your innate self and schedule in order to accomplish the resolution. I am basically pretty organized, so it was easy for me to get into your recommended evening tidy-up habit (which, by the way, is a great tip). I also tried exercising on Mondays, however, and it just didn’t take: I have two little kids and work full time, so Mondays are for catchup at the office. For major departures, maybe it’s best to start small.

  • laur

    i like these tips for how to stick to something, but could you write something about how to bounce back after a setback or failure in a goal? while adherence is great, there is no way to stick to something if you don’t know how to take steps forward after steps back and this may be why so many goals are abandoned.

  • “The most important quality for a prodigy, then, is not innate talent, but a drive to practice.” I couldn’t agree more!
    I also find the “NEVER or EVERYDAY” works best for me. I can’t stop after 5 potato chips. For me, PREVENTION is just as important as motivation. (To prevent myself from myself)
    e.g. I have a destinated area for exercise gear, right between the bed and bathroom so I can’t miss it in the morning. Cut cable to prevent myself from watching too much TV. Never buy snacks and hardly go in the center of the groceries store to prevent myself from buying unhealthy food. My favorite is an analog egg timer that goes tick-tock-tick-tock by my computer to prevent myself from spending more than 60 minutes online.

  • Let me second your idea that it is easier to do something every day than to do it two or three times a week. Friends told me that the best way to learn to draw was to draw, every day. So I got a nice sketchbook and started. When I got to the end of the fourth week, I was so excited that I’d been drawing for 28 days in a row, that I put the 28 drawings on my blog. The next day I posted my drawing, and the next, and pretty soon I realized that I could use my blog as a way to help me keep this daily commitment to myself.
    For me, this works. Next Monday will be my 1000th consecutive day of drawing and posting. One thousand days. Can’t quite believe it. In addition to learning about drawing, I’ve learned a fair amount about myself. For me, if I can find some way to go public with a daily commitment, it really helps.
    Thanks for all you are doing in your happiness project, Gretchen!

  • I’ve never thought specifically about bouncing back from a setback…that’s a very important question, so since everyone, surely, tries and fails to keep a resolution. Just read Samuel Johnson’s repeated resolutions to start getting up earlier (which he never did do). I’m going to do some work on that question.
    Making it as easy as possible to keep a resolution is a GREAT point. Cutting the cable, staying away from the snack aisle, putting gym clothes out, all fantastic suggestions. The key is to make it as easy as possible to stick to the resolution, so that little snags don’t get in the way.
    and 1000 days of drawing! I love this! I checked out your blog, so great to see. A litte bit, every day, adds up to a huge accomplishment. So exciting.

  • EAC

    A great quote I stumbled upon recently sums up the “little bit every day” idea:
    “Well-being is attained little by and little, and nevertheless it is no little thing itself.” –Zeno of Citium
    For major life changes to stick (i.e., a whole new way of eating, etc.) sometimes we have to throw out our all-or-nothing approach and be content to do it bit by bit. The all-or-nothing approach can lead to, among other things, binge disorders.

  • mel

    Another relevant quote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” (Aristotle)
    By the way, am I the only one who thinks compliance/adhering sounds a bit UNdesirable? I see what they’re getting at, but “do as your told” doesn’t turn my crank and certainly doesn’t help my motivation.

  • Thanks, Gretchen.
    As I’ve gone along with my daily drawing project, a favorite quotation of mine has been:
    “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”
    That was from the autobiography of the English novelist Anthony Trollope, who wrote his novels by getting up early and composing a certain number of words before he went to his job every day at the Post Office. If he finished one novel before he’d reached his daily quota, he’d simply start the next one!
    (Of course, I also think that Spasmodic Hercules sounds like a good name for a band…)

  • I sometimes try to lower my expectations and see if I can at least meet the lowered ones. Not ideal, but better than nothing. Something good is better than nothing. I take for my inspiration the last sentences of Middlemarch:
    “Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on un-historic acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.”
    Holy crap! That could be the inspirational sentence for my happiness project…I just realized it as I was copying.

  • Another relevant quote…
    “Incremental change is better than ambitious failure.”
    Tony Schwartz (via Ben-Shahar’s “Happier”).

  • Greg Carter

    *Decision* is very powerful for me. If I say, “I’m going to try to do better” or “I’m going to watch what I eat,” forget it. It’s not going to happen. If I *decide*, though, there’s a very good chance I’ll do it.
    Hard and fast rules (like your “never” and “every day” resolutions) are best. I decided not to eat sugar for 2007 and, not only is my health better, I’m happier! No more agonizing over whether to have a (or another) cookie or bowl of ice cream; the decision is made, and I can relax. After nine months, I’m certain that the angst over whether and how much sweet stuff I ate far outweighed the enjoyment of such foods. Clarity is a very good thing.

  • These comments, I think, show evidence of a strategy that no one has explicitly mentioned: identify quotations and passages that resonate with you, and review them for inspiration.
    Believe it or not, I have EVERY SINGLE ONE of the quotations mentioned above in my notes for the Happiness Project!
    Every Saturday I pick out a favorite quotation, and in the process, I review dozens and dozens that are in my notes. That, in itself, provides great reinforcement of my resolutions.

  • I agree with Greg Carter’s comment about the “decision” being the overarching factor. I’ve recently made a resolution to get healthier (September resolutions work better than January ones for me!) and I am sticking to this one. For one thing, I’ve cut out all processed foods. It’s a no brainer. Like Greg said, I am not worrying about whether or not to eat that store-bought cookie. I just don’t.
    This resolution felt different from the beginning, and it was born out of a conclusion I made about the state my health. I spent the last week of summer holidays with an awful cold, and I realized I catch every awful cold that comes knocking. I got sick and tired of being sick and tired!
    I guess I hit a breaking point. And that’s what did it.

  • Your idea of doing something every day as a way of sticking to it moved me to make the same resolution before launching my blog.
    As the second blog I didn’t knew if I could do it because my first blog was done kind of whenever.
    But making that resolution has made all the change so far. There is of course the added part that I publicly committed to it but making the decision to do it every day before I started has made it easier to do every day.
    I still have problem with the never again side of the coin but if it works just as well it needs to be tried out.

  • MrsHamilton

    Doing something NEVER or EVERY DAY works for me for relatively small, discrete changes. For larger lifestyle changes, such as beginning an exercise program, my motto is “something is better than nothing.” That gets me started. However little I do, I take pride that I’ve done it and started the change. The next time, I do a little more and take pride in that. Eventually the benefits of the something (exercise) outweigh the nothing (sloth) and it snowballs. It can sound negative, but for me it’s a very positive recognition of what I’m accomplishing. Even if I falter, this thought prevents me from giving up. I just do something, which is better than the nothing.

  • thanks for this post, Gretchen! I blogged about it (!
    I really like the idea of doing something every day, and I’m trying to do something about exercise every day for my personal goal. Thanks to this, I ended up running a personal best time for 2 miles tonight. I hadn’t intended on working out, and I didn’t feel that great . . . but I know that I have to do something exercise-wise on a daily basis, so I laced up my shoes and went for a walk. Once I was out there, I figured I might as well run 🙂

  • whoops — here’s a version that actually links to my blog: