Why Resolutions and Affirmations Don’t Work

What are your resolutions this year? Most of us joke about them, yet I for one find this a great time to start practicing good habits and affirmations.

Some say New Year’s resolutions and affirmations don’t work. They are wrong. They work as long as we work them.

Most people give up the first time they slip. The secret, of course, is perseverance. Just “keep on keeping on…” If there’s not a country and western song by that title there should be!

Here’s what you need to know about making promises to yourself: you have to believe what you set out to do is possible. Many people set unrealistic goals. Better to start with little steps and then surprise yourself by exceeding them.

Did you know that affirmations were started at the turn of the 20th century by a French pharmacist by the name of Emile Coue? Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Émile Coué de Châtaigneraie (February 26, 1857 – July 2, 1926) was a French psychologist and pharmacist who introduced a method of psychotherapy and self-improvement based on optimistic autosuggestion.

The application of his mantra-like conscious autosuggestion, “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better” (French: Tous les jours à tous points de vue je vais de mieux en mieux) is called Couéism or the Coué method. The Coué method centers on a routine repetition of this particular expression according to a specified ritual, in a given physical state, and in the absence of any sort of allied mental imagery, at the beginning and at the end of each day.

Unlike a common held belief that a strong conscious will constitutes the best path to success, Coué maintained that curing some of our troubles requires a change in our unconscious thought, which can only be achieved by using our imagination. Although stressing that he was not primarily a healer but one who taught others to heal themselves, Coué claimed to have effected organic changes through autosuggestion.

Coué was one of the first to discover and use the placebo effect, whereby patients achieve physical improvement simply by believing in the power of a treatment.

What is not well-known about Coué is that he also discovered that using affirmations wouldn’t work if the person made judgment about the affirmation.

So many motivational speakers tell us that anyone can achieve anything they want, that limitations are self-imposed. Well, hey yeah! There may be good reason to self-limit: it’s called realism and self-awareness.

In Srikumar Rao’s book, Happiness at Work, he explains for affirmations to work as intended, two conditions are necessary:

  1. At some level, you have to believe – really believe – that what you are affirming is possible, even likely.
  2. You have to take appropriate action that matches what you are affirming.

The reason many people fail to sustain their resolutions before the end of January is because they choose unsustainable behaviors.

Getting up an hour early to exercise isn’t hard once you’ve got the habit. But it’s extremely hard to go from no days to 7 days a week on January 3rd.

Tony Schwartz, author of Six Keys to Being Excellent at Anything, shared this in a blog post over at Harvard Business Review. I know from experience that his sixth tip, ritualizing practice is true:

Will and discipline are wildly overrated. As the researcher Roy Baumeister has found, none of us have very much of it. The best way to insure you’ll take on difficult tasks is to ritualize them — build specific, inviolable times at which you do them, so that over time you do them without having to squander energy thinking about them.

Pick a day and time and an activity that is immovable. The fewer options, the less opportunity to make excuses. This can apply to exercise, diet, or practicing difficult conversations.

Just do it, and then, every day, in every way, you’ll be getting better!

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