If your New Year’s Resolution (NYR) is to not read long articles, here’s a brief summary of this blog post:
- Making a NYR is not always a waste of time. You are ten times more likely to achieve your goal if you actively make a resolution than if you do not.
- Applying the five techniques in this article may help your chances of making your goals stick
Why do New Year’s Resolutions fail?
Firstly, we make resolutions with a long-term view rather than a short-term view. For example, some people may say they want to ‘start eating healthy’ or ‘spend less time on social media’. These efforts come from the long-term rational part of our brain. But it’s the impulsive, short-term part of our brain that creates our habits and rituals and takes over most of our day-day thinking.
Here is a little study: Hofmann and colleagues (2012) gave 205 adults bleepers and instructed them to record any desires or cravings they were having when their beeper went off. They collected 7,827 reports of desires. The study showed that we spend half our days desiring or craving something. Unfortunately for NYRs, half of these desires conflict with our personal goals.
Secondly, we have a tendency to underestimate the temptation of future cravings. At the very moment you make a NYR you are probably not craving a cigarette or fried chicken.
Thirdly, most goals do not work. Lots of variables come into play. Life satisfaction, your level of agency and where you focus our attention. Studies show that we focus on reward at the start (when our bellies are full and want to lose weight). But when the cravings hit, we focus on effort and do not refocus on the reward. We fail to be realistic about the effort required.
So why bother with New Year’s Resolutions?
Put simply: yes, you should make resolutions, whether it’s at the start of a new year, your birthday or any other time of the year for that matter. When you actively set a goal you are 10 times more likely to achieve it, compared to when you do not set one.
When making your NYR or goals do these five things:
Get social support
Sharing your commitment with others will make it more likely your resolution will happen. Every year, 1.5 billion muslims make a commitment to abstain from food during Ramadan. By doing this collectively, temptation is reduced and people in the community support each other to manage cravings.
Why does this work? We respond better to social norms or pressure than to economic rewards or punishments. A small local community gym I used to go to (yes, it was a failed NYR, but that’s another story) was penalising no-shows for classes with a £3 fine. As part of a little experiment, I asked the manager to send all gym members a weekly email with the names of those who had not been able to join a class because there were no more places. The gym saw a 23% reduction in late cancellations and no-shows. In other words: we do not like letting other people down.
Plan to stay in control
Your brain does not think in sentences. It thinks in terms of conditions.
German psychologists Peter Gollwitzer and Anja Achtziger found that creating ‘action triggers’ can help avoid old behaviours. These are so-called ‘if-then’ conditions. In order to prevent triggering old behaviours, replace an old ‘if-then’ condition with a new one.
So, if your aim is to live more healthily and you previously told yourself ‘If I finish work, I will have a glass of wine’, you could now say ‘If I finish work, I will have a nice fruit juice’.
Or instead of saying ’If I am tired and the kids are yelling, I will get angry’, say ‘If I am starting to feel angry with the kids, I will leave the room for 90 seconds (and return back to them when I am more relaxed)’.
Track what situations or scenarios are likely to trigger old behaviours. From there, create new ‘if-then’ conditions.
Focus on rituals
Should we aim to live longer for our kids’ sake, or smoke that next cigarette? We often have two competing desires: one long-term and another immediate. We tend to use delay discounting in such situations: the longer we have to wait for the reward, the less we value it. For instance: Would you rather have £100 now or £300 in three years?
Focus on short-term habits. Such as going for a walk two times a day, eating five pieces of fruit per day, or saying ‘no’ three times every month.
Work on positive expectations
Since the 1950’s, doctors have been administering placebos to certain patients in the form of sugar pills. These placebo pills cause the brain to release endogenous opioids and hence provide a natural relief from pain without the need for actual medication (Colloca & Barsky, 2020).
More recently, another study found that managing expectations can have a real impact on the outcome. In the study, health psychologists informed heart surgery patients about the positive experience of the recovery process. Patients were told about the benefits of the surgery and were prepared for only some minor discomfort during the recovery period. Compared to patients who were not briefed about the positive sides of the recovery process, these patients were discharged five days earlier and had improved physical functioning six-months later (Auer et al., 2018; Rief et al., 2017).
So, think about your goal and the expectations you have and the assumptions you hold.
If, for example, you want to get more hours of sleep in the new year, don’t worry about a specific number of hours you should be aiming for. Three years ago, I was asked to become a Managing Director whilst having new born twin boys. I averaged four hours of sleep a night. What helped was not more sleep or getting a sleep trainer, but knowing and accepting that I was not going to get more than four hours of sleep a night for at least another eight months. I told myself change would start happening once my kids were a bit older, after nine months. And it did. Now I average a luxurious 6 hours of sleep a night.
Create new stories
We are the product of the stories we tell ourselves. Think of yourself as a scientist, evaluating and experimenting with your expectations.
So, if you are trying to lose weight and you have low expectations of your body, ask yourself for evidence. Where do these negative opinions come from? When do these thoughts happen? When you exercise and feel resistance, do you find yourself saying ‘I'm unfit and can’t do this’?. Instead, think about ‘these are natural reactions which happen when you build strength’.
So, do I make NYRs? Yes, but throughout the year I try to keep a handful of techniques in motion to help me achieve my NYRs.
If your NYR is to read the end of long articles, thank-you for reading. And if you do have a NYR, I wish you the best of luck, willpower and success with your fresh start.
- Achtziger, A., & Gollwitzer, P.M. (2018), Motivation and volition in the course of action, in: Motivation and Action, 3rd edition, J. Heckhausen and H. Heckhausen, 485-527. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Verlag.
- Achtziger, A., Bayer, U. C., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2012), Committing oneself to implementation intentions: Attention and memory effects for selected situational cues. Motivation and Emotion, 36, 287–300.
- Doran, G. T. (1981), There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives, Management Review 70(11), 35–36.
- Statistics Brain Institute (2017) New Year’s Resolution Statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.statisticbrain.com/new-years-resolution-statistics/
- Hofmann, W., Baumeister, R. F., Förster, G., & Vohs, K. D. (2012). Everyday temptations: an experience sampling study of desire, conflict, and self-control. Journal of personality and social psychology, 102(6), 1318.