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Why do we make and break New Year’s resolutions?


Are your New Year's resolutions already crumbling? Dr Paul Harrison shares some insights on how to make them last through January and beyond.

It's an arbitrary date of a calendar developed by mathematicians and introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, but on 1 January each year, many of us like to think about how we might change one (or some) of our less appealing habits.

We could instead have picked 1 September, which was the start of the Byzantine year, or 25 March, which was the start of the legal year in England from the 12th century until 1751.

But humans love a ritual, and the start of the Gregorian year seems like a perfectly sensible time to try something different.

Contrary to widespread public opinion, a considerable proportion of New Year's resolutions do in fact succeed, at least in the short run. While the success rates of New Year's resolutions obviously depend on what you are trying to achieve and how long the behaviour lasts, generally speaking, the proportion of self-reported continuous success was 46% after 6 months, according to one study.

Although, many of us still struggle to meet our goals.

Sitting beneath most resolutions is a desire to change a behaviour, so the best way to understand behaviour change is to look at the psychological and sociological factors that underpin the desire to change. Then we can think about the ways in which we can make change more likely.

The first issue to acknowledge is that it is quite difficult to change behaviour, particularly long-term, entrenched habits. Generally speaking, habits are a product of a complex range of factors that have led to the actual behaviour that you want to change.

Researchers in my field develop complex system maps that incorporate psychological, social, cultural, financial, familial, biological, historical and environmental factors that contribute to a behaviour, then develop interventions to assist change.

It is not a simple process to change; humans are pretty committed to the status quo. That's why it's tricky to change eating or drinking behaviours, for example, because they are so strongly connected to social contexts and are legitimised by culture.

Willpower vs practise

Some of these habits that many of us want to change, such as smoking, poor eating habits or not exercising enough (or at all) require significant and multiple interventions followed by regular reward.

People who say that it is simply a process of putting your mind to it or using "willpower" tend to know very little about minds and are often pretty set in their ways themselves – and probably also have some bad habits themselves that they would like to change.

We are complicated creatures.

The reality is that willpower requires significant cognitive resources that are only accessible if we aren't stressed, sad, hungry, annoyed or just tired. And then, to top it off, as we change a habit, we also are exhausting the rational capacity (or willpower) to continue the change.

Willpower is finite, so we have to take breaks from a behaviour change. In other words, the more you try to change something, the more tired you become and the harder it is to practise willpower. It's a vicious cycle.

However, practising something makes it easier, and if we do it enough, it becomes a new habit.

So, if we accept that change is effortful, requires practise and takes time, then what are some of the reasons that we slip up and how can we counter them?

Set attainable goals

New Year's resolutions are usually abstract and aspirational. So, although resolutions such as "eating more healthily", "being optimistic", "spending less time on social media", "being less anxious" or "looking like Daniel Craig in that scene from Casino Royale" sound like reasonable goals (maybe not the last one), they don't help us achieve much.

We also tend to make lists of lots of habits that we want to change all at once, such as the following:

  • Losing weight
  • Saving more money
  • Playing with the kids more
  • Quitting smoking and/or drinking

What this does is overwhelm us. It requires us to focus on long-term, big changes rather than on small changes in the here and now.

So, instead of broad sweeping statements, be a little more strategic in your thinking.

Start with a broad, general goal, but then think more deeply about the steps you will need to take to achieve that goal.

Similarly, keep to one or two goals, rather than a shopping list of everything you want to do.

If you want to get healthy, think about the behaviours that will help you get healthy in a more concrete and incremental way. Be specific and detailed.

For example, do your research and work out what foods you want to reduce or cut out from your diet or what type of exercise you are most likely to succeed at.

Make a plan over a period of time and do your best to stick to it. But don't change too much, too quickly. Remember, 1 January is just an arbitrary date. Use it as a starting point, but don't feel like you have to achieve everything at the start of the new year.

Attach a new habit to an old habit

We tend to create totally new activities, rather than gently modifying one that we already do.

But psychologists know that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. So pick a small goal for each achievement and move through them incrementally.

For example, having one less piece of toast at breakfast is going to be easier than changing your diet completely and having a Kale smoothie every day (if you have never had one previously).

If you want to exercise more, don't attempt to go from no exercise at all to two-hour, daily visits to a gym.

Think about what you currently do and try to a little more of it.

If you already walk to the bus, train or tram, then make a decision to walk two or three extra stops.

Do something (anything) to get started

Many people believe that you need perfect conditions to get started, when in fact simply doing anything toward your goal can help you to form a habit.

You may have heard about the steps of behavioural change as being cognitive – affective – conative (or attitude – emotion – behaviour). That is, you first have to change your attitude then emotionally commit before behaviour can change.

However, psychological research suggests that it doesn't necessarily have to be in that order. Simply doing a new behaviour (without commitment) can form a habit, which can lead to an attitude and emotional change.

So, going for a regular bike ride (conative) can lead to an emotional sense of success (affective) to the activity. Then, as it becomes a habit, you will take on the attitudinal commitment (cognitive).

In other words, just do it – and see what happens.

Give yourself rewards for success

Many people believe that they have to punish themselves for their bad habits. But humans have evolved to seek rewards. So, when you have reached one of your smaller goals, reward yourself for the success. Just don't reward yourself by undoing your success.

As you map out your short-term goals, make a note of what you are going to do to reward yourself.

It could be a coffee with friends, a weekend trip to an art gallery or a warm bath, whatever makes you happy.

But build the reward into your plan to signal your gratitude to yourself for achieving each step, rather than seeing it as an add-on or luxury you can't afford.

Share the commitment

As I have said before, humans are social animals, so we benefit from doing things in groups.

If possible, find some friends that will join you in the behaviour change. This means that you can support each other through the good times and the tough times.

Making a public statement to your friends and families about what you are trying to achieve has also been shown to assist in forming new habits.

So, let people know what you are doing. But don't do it on social media because this type of commitment is not as strong as a personal interaction.

If you fail, keep going

We underestimate how long it takes to kick a bad habit or adopt a good one. Despite popular opinion, it takes a lot longer than a few weeks to change an ingrained behaviour.

A study in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggested that, depending on the behaviour and the context, it can take between 18 to 254 days of regular practice before a new behaviour becomes automatic.

There is a whole range of factors that can mediate the success of behaviour change.

Don't be too hard on yourself if you slip up. But if you do, just conjure up a different "start to the year", where you get to decide on the date. As we have learned, history has a flexible relationship with when the year starts.

The key is to remember that even if you mess up, let the words of the great philosophers Gabriel and Bush guide you: "don't give up, you're not beaten yet".

Keep practising and you will get there.

Dr Paul Harrison is professor of marketing and consumer behaviour at Deakin Business School. He is the marketing lead in Deakin's MBA program and is director of the Centre for Employee and Consumer Wellbeing.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article (which may be subject to change without notice) are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Finder and its employees. The information contained in this article is not intended to be and does not constitute financial advice, investment advice, trading advice or any other advice or recommendation of any sort. Neither the author nor Finder has taken into account your personal circumstances. You should seek professional advice before making any further decisions based on this information.

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