The Reason Your New Year’s Resolution Failed — and the Resolution You Should Have Picked Instead

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News Years Baby
Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Let’s face it: We’re just a week into 2016, and there’s a decent chance your New Year’s resolution, if you made one, is already in tatters. That’s what the statistics say, anyway: A little more than half of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, but only 8 percent of those who do succeed in meeting their goals.

This isn’t something to feel bad about. Changing your behavior — whether it’s eating less, exercising more, or whatever else — is really, really difficult. But there’s a chance you’re facing these challenges in a hamstrung way, and there’s an easy solution: Get more sleep. Keeping New Year’s resolutions, after all, require self-control, energy, and focus, and if you’re sleep-deprived, which a sizable chunk of Americans are, you’re likely lacking in all of these departments.

Bear with me here. There’s voluminous evidence that those countless little decisions that, when added up, lead us to fail or succeed at our New Year’s resolution — take a cookie or leave it; go to the gym or stay at home watching football — are affected by our level of stress and exhaustion at a given moment. “When you’re tired you lack the self-control to eat healthy and the focus to be productive,” said Dr. David Wagner, a sleep expert at the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business (full disclosure: we are colleagues who work across the hall from one another). “If you want to reach those New Year’s resolutions you need to gather the power to pursue them. That power can come through sleep that is better, longer, and more regular.”

It’s natural to resist this idea — it seems like an unnecessary detour. “With goals, we tend to want to want to rush straightforward,” Wagner said. “So slowing down to take a break and sleep seems wrong.” But there’s a lot to be said for a sleep-focused approach to other goals. Researchers like Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, for example, have documented the ways in which exhaustion and stress deplete our willpower. All else being equal, a well-rested person will have a much easier time resisting that cookie than a sleepy one. And studies have shown that people who don’t get enough sleep aren’t just more tired, but are also more distracted, more likely to get injured at work, and even less likely make effective moral judgements. If you wanted to make one lifestyle choice likely to have beneficial “downstream” effects for your well-being, there’s a strong case to be made that getting a bit more sleep would be the best choice. In other words: It might not immediately be obvious why getting more sleep will help you, say, exercise more, but if you’re sleep-deprived there’s actually a vital link between the two.

Getting more sleep is easier said than done, of course — in addition to the obvious obstacles imposed by hectic work schedules, many people are plagued by some sort of sleep disorder. Researchers do have a good sense of what works, though, and they think establishing a consistent bedtime routine is key. “For me, good sleep doesn’t happen easily, so I have to be sure to dial in my routine,” Wagner explains. “This includes going to sleep and arising at consistent times, as well as keeping the bedroom dark and quiet. Ideally I get just a hair under eight hours of sleep a night, but of course I don’t always get that.”

One of the major misunderstandings about sleep, said Wagner — and one of the reasons many people delay or put off entirely addressing their sleep issues — is that many people wrongly believe they can just push themselves to the limit and then, when they are tired, “catch up” on sleep. According to Wagner, that’s not actually the case — sleep loss can have a lingering effect. “When you postpone sleep, you aren’t refilling your stockpile of self-control, which makes it harder to resist the urge for something like ‘just one more Netflix episode,’” he told me. In some cases this can lead to a cascade of sleep-ruining behavior, which means that if you don’t sleep well tonight, sleeping well tomorrow night may be harder, not easier.

So, a proposal: If you’re not getting enough sleep, and you’re also having trouble meeting some 2016 goal, try adopting getting more sleep as your goal. In addition to all of the other important benefits of being well-rested, it will make it easier for you to accomplish all of that other stuff as well.

Troy Campbell is an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business.