Why (Most) Resolutions Fail

Published January 10, 2019

It’s the New Year, so I’m writing this post on day 24 of a juice cleanse, while walking at a treadmill desk and simultaneously learning Italian, Mandarin and Dothraki.

Actually, I just stopped at Panda Express. (So good!)

Is every resolution doomed to fail or is a “New-Year, New-You” even possible?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately—how behavior changes can be encouraged, why some methods work where others crash and burn. And not just because it’s January.

You’ll be more effective inspiring behavioral change by persuading them with nudges than by restricting choice.

As we build Humu, we’re acutely focused on making the experience of work better for everyone, everywhere—a mission that’s likely to require behavioral change in organizations from top to bottom, from the mailroom to the boardroom, from retail to real estate.

There’s a lot to learn, but there’s one thing that the research is unequivocal on: as cliché as it is, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. You’ll be more effective inspiring behavioral change (in yourself, in others, in your company or organization) by persuading them with nudges than by restricting choice or forcing action or ideologies.

I was reminded of this by a recent Atlantic article in which writer Peter Beinart described research by a team from the University of Toronto:

In a 2011 study, three social psychologists … gave college students two different pamphlets meant to combat prejudice. The first emphasized the value of nondiscrimination. (“It’s fun to meet people from other cultures.”) The second emphasized social norms that discourage discrimination. (“People in my social circle disapprove of prejudice.”) The second pamphlet was not only less effective than the first in reducing bigotry; it actually led to a spike in manifestations of bigotry. [emphasis mine]

“Shaming people for their views can backfire,” he wrote, causing them to dig in their heels and double down on the behavior. “Pressuring people to accept a non-bigoted belief can engender resentment that leads them to express more bigotry than they did before.”

A specific example to be sure, so now back to my juice cleanse, and why restricting diets, which often rely on tactics of shame and deprivation, so often fail. When we slip up on our resolutions (me at Panda Express), we shame ourselves for that failure. And shame leaves little reason for doing better tomorrow. What’s the point? I’m flawed, I’m terrible, so why bother trying? And all of a sudden, we’ve constructed a justification for not eating healthy.

The winning tactic isn’t the removal of choice, it’s the subtle nudge toward a better one.

On the contrary, if I tell myself that I made a mistake, but tomorrow is another meal, another chance, I’m able to accept the inevitable ups and downs without giving up. In this way, deprivation is never going to construct an environment for a personal success, nor is it likely to provide the outcome you want when trying to shift behavior in a workplace or other social setting.

Here’s where we know nudging is proven to be effective. For the uninitiated, read up on the work of Nobel prize-winning economist Richard Thaler. Personally speaking, the techniques we implemented at Google helped me to lose 30 pounds over two years and keep it off. When we put candy in opaque containers in company micro-kitchens, calories consumed from sweets dropped by 40 percent as people opted for the more visible, healthy snacks.

The winning tactic isn’t the removal of choice, it’s the subtle nudge toward a better one. In contrast, when Google tried an experiment replacing 12-inch plates in its cafeterias with 9-inch versions, it was close to outright revolt. “Now I have to get up twice to have lunch,” wailed one employee. But the power of the nudge: in a cafe where both the 9 and 12-inch version were available, 21 percent switched to the smaller plates.

The big idea is this: if we’re trying to change our behavior, looking backward makes us feel ashamed. Looking forward gives us a chance to be a little bit better, every day.

Whether your goal is to become healthier, reduce bigotry or master a fictional language, look for the opportunity ahead of you, instead of the missed opportunities behind.


This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

About the Author
Laszlo Bock

Laszlo Bock

Co-founder and CEO


Laszlo Bock served as Google’s senior vice president of people operations, growing the company from 6,000 to more than 75,000 employees. Google has been recognized more than 150 times as an exceptional employer, including the #1 “Best Company to Work for in the United States” every year since 2012. He is the co-founder and CEO of HUMU, a research consultancy with a mission to make work better. Bock’s New York Times best-selling book, Work Rules! has been published in more than 20 languages and garnered numerous honors.

Years at GLS 2017