Now that the festivities, parties and feasts of Christmas are over, we’re getting to that time of the year again where we can think about New Years’ fireworks, the chime of midnight… and resolutions. We’ve all been there at some point or another – whether it’s to get fit and head to the gym on that oh-so-realistic daily basis, save soooo much money per month, or to attempt something new every day for all 365 days. I’m getting tired even thinking about it! Well, I thought I would present to you here, the psychological and behavioural science behind our resolutions; the likelihood we’ll stick to them (and why), and whether it’s even worth making them in the first place. And no, I’m not trying to make myself feel better for failing to stick to my own resolutions last year.
Every year around about half of us decide to set out our hopeful and often ambitious resolutions around the New Years mark, but for a while research has shown that very few of us (about 10-20%) stick to these resolutions after a few months, or even weeks.
So, what is that these special few do (or don’t do) to make their resolutions a revolution?
- #1 Be realistic:
Setting realistic goals is important, whether it’s with your time, money or energy. Research has shown that setting unrealistic, or just overly-ambitious goals is detrimental to those New Years dreams. There’s even a technical (and very apt) name for many of this; false hope syndrome. Basically, if we have unrealistic visions of how quickly, easily, and dramatically our behaviour, body, or outlook will change, we’re a lot less likely to actually meet our goals simply because we become disheartened by the comparative lack of change. So, make small, gradual steps which are easy to get into the habit of, and maybe after a few days or a week it’ll seem just like normal to walk that little bit extra every day.
- #2 Be specific:
Mentally linking your resolutions to a specific goal seems to work well for a lot of people. A lot of people’s resolutions are literally changing their (bad) habits, and the easiest way of getting rid of a habit is by replacing it with a new one! By linking your new resolution, or habit, to a specific thing you already do, it should be easier for you to remember and keep it up! For example, instead of saying ‘Oh, I want to do more exercise this year”, go with something more like, “I will get off the bus a stop earlier to and from work to walk”. A clear objective, with a specific action in mind is more motivating and focused, and you can always increase your effort levels once this has become your new (great) habit! See the video below for tips on breaking out of bad habits!
- #3 Mind Over Matter
Not all resolutions are about habit-changing and DOING things. For some, changing the way they think about themselves, or life, is what they really want to change. A lot of research around this topic has been undertaken by social psychologist Timothy Wilson, of the University of Virginia. A technique which has been suggested for altering our mentality is the re-writing of ‘self-stories’. Self-stories are the subconscious idea we have of ourselves, where our thoughts and behaviours are consistent to fit in with this identity. It’s very likely that New Year’s resolutions concerning changing your mentality (e.g. I’m going to be less stressed/ more optimistic/ more outgoing this year) go against this subconscious self-story. So, to change this you literally need to write, and re-write it! For example, if throughout the year you want to become more optimistic, in your story talk about how you are someone who currently is normally pessimistic, or struggles to be that optimistic. THEN, scrap that and write a new self-story which emphasises how optimistic you are as a person, and someone who looks on the bright side of things (or whatever it is that you are aiming to change). Amazingly, this very conscious and literal action has been found to be very successful at changing people’s thought processes and behaviour!
- #4 Sharing is Caring (and more successful)
Changing your life and bad habits is difficult right?! Doing it on your own can be even harder. Setting resolutions with a partner, friend, or family could make it just that much easier. Having the same goal, and putting in the same blood, sweat and (maybe a lot of) tears, can help in maintaining both of your motivation. Having the people around you aware of your goals too can help to keep temptation out of your way! Research has shown that although at the beginning maintaining motivation is mainly down to our own willpower, after about 6 months having social support can make a massive difference!
- #5 Accept Relapse and not Failure
Unless you have the willpower of a god it’s very likely that at some point you will give into your cravings for that one cigarette, not going to the gym for those few days… or eating that whole giant bar of Dairy Milk that was on offer in the shop and calling to you. It’s actually more beneficial and productive to accept this as what it is, a relapse, but to keep going – don’t guilt trip yourself! Previous research has shown that even those who successfully maintain their resolutions past two years slip up once or twice (…or 14 times).
New Year’s resolutions aren’t usually easy – they take a lot more time, effort and willpower than we’d like to think. But, it turns out we can make them a success. Just remember, hope and a positive outlook are strong tools for change, and every time you really crave that coffee, cake, or cigarette, or when it’s raining and you’re considering using it as an excuse to not hit the gym – people who make New Year’s resolutions are a lot (around 10 times) more likely to reach their goals than those of us which don’t! And if you need any motivation like I do, check out this great video below.
Time to set some 2018 goals for my lazy self I guess!
Look out for our all our new blog posts coming up – we’ve got a great line up for January and February already! Until then – Happy New Year’s!
American Psychological Association (2017). Making your New Year’s Resolutions stick. Available at: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/resolution.aspx. (Accessed on 23/12/17).
Marlatt, G.A. and Kaplan, B.E. (1972). Self-Initiated Attempts to Change Behavior: A Study of New Year’s Resolutions. Sage Journals, Psychological Reports, Vol. 30 (1). Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.2466/pr0.19188.8.131.52. (Accessed on 21/ 12/17).