The Psychology of New Year’s Resolutions

The conversationResearch has shown that about half of adults make New Year’s resolutions. However, less than 10% manage to maintain them for more than a few months.

As a behavioral addiction teacher I know how easily people can fall into bad habits and why trying to break those habits makes it easy to relapse. Solutions usually come in the form of lifestyle changes, and changing behavior that has become routine and habitual (even if not problematic) can be difficult to do.

The most common solutions are: losing weight, exercising more, quitting smoking and saving money.

The main reason people don’t stick to their resolutions is that they set too many or are unrealistic to achieve. They may also be victims of “false hope syndrome.” False hope syndrome is characterized by a person’s unrealistic expectations about the potential speed, amount, ease, and consequences of changing their behavior.

Exercise new years resolution

People set unrealistic goals. Image credit: imtmphoto/

For some people, it takes something radical to change their ways. It took a medical diagnosis to get me to give up alcohol and caffeine and it took a pregnancy for my partner to quit smoking.

To change your daily behavior, you must also change your thinking. But there are proven ways that can help people stick to their resolutions – here are my personal favourites:

Be realistic. You need to start by making decisions that you can keep and that are practical. If you want to reduce your alcohol consumption because you tend to drink alcohol every day, don’t go right away. Try to cut out alcohol every other day or have one drink every three days. Also, breaking down the long-term goal into more manageable short-term goals can be beneficial and more rewarding. The same principle can be applied to exercise or eating healthier.

Do one thing at a time. One of the easiest ways to fail is to have too many solutions. If you want to be fitter and healthier, do just one thing at a time. Cut the booze. Stop smoking. Join a gym. Eat healthier. But don’t do them all at once, just pick one and do your best to stick to it. Once you have one thing under your control, you can start a second analysis.

Be smart. Anyone who works in a job that involves setting goals will know that goals need to be SMART, i.e. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound. Resolutions should not be different. Reducing alcohol consumption is an admirable goal, but it’s not SMART. Drinking no more than two units of alcohol every other day for a month is a SMART solution. Linking the analysis to a specific goal can also be motivating, for example, to drop a dress size or lose two centimeters from your waist in time for the next summer vacation.

Tell someone your solution. Letting your family and friends know you have a New Year’s resolution you really want to keep will act as both a safety barrier and a face saver. If you really want to quit smoking or drinking, real friends won’t tempt you and can help you monitor your behavior. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support from those around you.

Change your behavior with others. Trying to change habits on your own can be difficult. For example, if you and your partner smoke, drink and eat unhealthy, it’s really hard for one partner to change their behavior if the other is still in the same old bad habits. Having the same resolution as dieting will improve your chances of success.

Don’t limit yourself

Changing your behavior, or some aspect of it, doesn’t have to be limited to the beginning of the New Year. It can be at any time.

Accept gaps as part of the process. It’s inevitable that when you’re trying to quit something (alcohol, cigarettes, junk food) there will be mistakes. You shouldn’t feel guilty about giving in to your desires, but accept that it’s part of the learning process. Bad habits can take years to establish and there are no quick fixes to making major lifestyle changes. These may be clichés, but we learn from our mistakes and every day is a new day – and you can start every day all over again.

If you think this all sounds like too much hard work and not worth making resolutions to begin with, keep in mind that people who make New Year’s resolutions are ten times more likely to achieve their goals than those who don’t.The conversation

Mark Griffiths, Director of the International Play Research Unit and Professor of Behavioral Addiction, Nottingham Trent University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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