A key part of this grand stance is, of course, the tradition of New Year’s resolutions.
But as you will have learned from last year (and the year before, and the year before that), these annual vows have a nasty habit of falling by the wayside by February.
Why are New Year’s resolutions so likely to fail?
Where are we going wrong?
Can we actually make our pledges stick? How?
We asked the experts to answer these key questions, as part of our regular Better Living series. Here’s what they said.
Why is it so hard to keep New Year’s resolutions?
‘Ultimately, New Year’s resolutions are about change, more specifically, behaviour change,’ Taslim Tharani, a psychologist, coach, and the founder of Thriving Together.
‘What we know from decades of psychological research is that behaviour change is actually incredibly hard and before we know it, we are back to our default and habitual ways of being.
‘There are a lot of psychological reasons why behaviour change is so challenging and therefore why we struggle to stick to New Year’s resolutions…’
Reasons why we struggle to keep up with New Year’s resolutions:
Taslim breaks down some common psychological reasons resolutions fail:
- Many of us identify our new year resolutions grounded in things which bring about fear, shame, regret or guilt. For example, losing weight, or quitting smoking, or exercising more. Research shows that motivation via negative emotions is usually the least effective for adopting new behaviours/habits.
- We focus on instant gratification and wanting to feel good in the moment. Resolutions often bring about change or positive impact in the future rather than in the present and we generally want to experience pleasant emotions in the ‘now’ rather than in six months’ time.
- We try to do too much. Change requires resources and research and theory suggests that these resources are finite. We often try to do too much all in one go, not realising that learning new things, or changing behaviour require resources and we fail to manage our own resources (motivation, attention, energy, willpower) effectively. This results in us struggling, ‘failing’ and giving up too soon.
- We think too big. We often don’t focus enough on processes and break down our resolution into smaller achievable steps. Goal setting theory (Locke & Latham 2002) and subsequent research shows us that small consistent behaviour is what results in big change – we want the big change but fail to identify how we are going to get there.
If your resolutions have flopped days into the New Year, that’s not a personal failing or a sign that you’re just not trying hard enough.
Any kind of change is difficult.
‘Resolutions often fail, not because of lack of willpower, but rather because change is complex, and it happens when we’re fully motivated by our own true goals and wishes, not goals which are imposed on us,’ says psychologist Natasha Tiwari. ‘January 1 has a big meaning culturally, but that doesn’t necessarily always align with our personal rhythm, cycles and goals.’
How to stick to your New Year’s resolutions in 2022
So, it’s a tough journey ahead. Do we have any hope? Or shall we just give up now?
Turns out there are some techniques you can try to make your resolutions a bit more achievable.
Make your resolutions positive, not negative
‘When writing your resolutions, frame them as something you are moving towards, rather than moving away from,’ explains Taslim. ‘Research suggests that resolutions which are framed with an “approach orientation” (moving towards a desired state) are significantly more likely to be sustainable than resolutions framed in an “avoidance orientation” (moving away from an undesired state).’
In practical terms, that’s reframing a resolution like ‘I want to quit all junk food’ as, instead, ‘I want to cook more meals at home’.
Think abundance and increase, rather than restriction.
Come up with short-term tasks to go with your long-term goal
There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big – but how are you going to make that goal actually happen?
Let’s say your resolution this year is to write a book. What smaller, day-to-day thing can you pledge to do to make this a reality? How about writing 500 words every day?
Or maybe you say you want to get fit and healthy by 2023. Make that your big resolution, sure, but have some smaller offshoots, too – something like ‘I will move my body every day’ or ‘I will go to the gym three times a week’.
Think about the ‘why’
Taslim encourages you to ask: ‘Are your resolutions coming from societal pressures or “shoulds” or are they coming from an internal want or wish?’
‘Identifying your ‘why’ will help you untangle from resolutions that are important to you and what you want in life vs what you think you should be doing,’ she says.
‘Research shows that when we connect our goals to our values, we are much more likely to achieve better results than those who simply state their goals.
‘This is because values tap into our intrinsic motivation and even when the going gets tough, we are likely to find a way to get back on track. We are also more willing to experience discomfort, challenges and failure if we are clear on our “why” and therefore more able to find alternative pathways to achieve our goals.’
Make a specific, actionable, and measurable plan
Ever heard of a SMART goal? This is an ambition that is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-sensitive.
Making a plan is a key part of ensuring your resolutions are SMART.
Psychologist Rick Snyder calls this ‘waypower’, to go along with willpower. What’s the pathway to achieve your goal?
- Break the goal into small, realistic achievable steps
- Explore different ways to achieve the goal – what are your options?
- Identify any obstacles that might get in the way and resources you have to overcome these
- Identify what support you need
- Identify how you will hold yourself accountable
Are your expectations a touch too high?
It’s great to push yourself and aim big, but make sure you’re not just setting yourself up for disappointment.
Taslim says: ‘It’s important we explore what is realistic for us in our own contexts.
‘We are unlikely to stick to anything if we feel overwhelmed or if it is not sustainable.’
Make your resolution something you really, honestly want
Meaning not something that you feel like you should want.
Life coach Nicole Barton says: ‘The biggest challenge for our New Year’s resolutions is that they usually bring up all sorts of unconscious fears and beliefs about our own power that have us doubt our capability to create the magical lives our hearts truly desire.
‘What is required for New Year Resolutions to work is to do the work to liberate ourselves from fear and allow ourselves to follow our hearts.’
Get comfortable with discomfort
Accept that sometimes, sticking to a resolution is not going to be all that fun. Remember your ‘why’, think about the outcome, and don’t give up out of fear or discomfort.
‘Human beings do not like uncomfortable emotions and our thoughts can spiral out of control and derail us,’ Taslim says.
She suggests learning to ‘be with’ unease and challenge the way we deal with it.
‘If one tends to comfort eat, perhaps we reach for chocolate or crisps or a cup of tea and biscuits to ease our boredom, or to eat away our sadness, or just for company,’ she gives as an example. ‘What if we could learn to “be with” our boredom or notice it – and so we have space to make a different choice?
‘In this way, we can prioritise the long term (healthy eating, losing half a stone) over the short-term feelings of boredom.
‘If we notice we are bored, instead of grabbing the nearest unhealthy snack, we could then find alternative solutions to that boredom.’
Speak it into reality
You don’t have to buy into manifestation, but it is worth stating your resolution regularly, either out loud or written down.
‘Create a one-line intention and goal that represents what you want to create – and speak it out daily as a way of keeping focused,’ suggests Nicole.
Use your strengths
Pull on skills you already have to make your goals happen.
‘When we use our strengths we are more able to learn new things, be more productive, experience greater quality of life, and have improved wellbeing,’ Taslim notes. ‘Finding a way to link your strengths to your resolutions and the actions you take towards your resolutions will enable you to continue to engage in those actions.
‘For example, if your New Year’s resolution is around moving your body more and you consistent action is taking a 30 to 40 minute walk three times a week – how might you bring your strengths into this? If your strength is connection, could you find a friend to join you? If your strength is creativity – could you perhaps take photos of what you see during your walk and create something with that?’
Don’t beat yourself up
If you slip up, don’t ditch your resolution and say you’ll just try again next year. Be kind to yourself, get back on track, and keep plodding along.