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The science of New Year’s resolutions

It’s December – the festive season is in full swing, and we’re beginning to look ahead to 2022. With a New Year, we have New Year’s traditions, and there’s none as famous as the New Year’s resolution. We all know resolutions – a promise or challenge made to ourselves about how we’ll change for the better in the coming year – and we all know that they’re surprisingly difficult to stick to. But what if science got involved, helping reshape the kinds of resolutions we make and how we maintain the changes?

The major issue with New Year’s resolutions, though they are generally a source of inspiration, is that we don’t actually stick to them. As I’ve written before, research suggests that around two-thirds of the people who make a resolution will swiftly end up breaking it. By February, that number can be over 80%. And the end result of failing with resolutions is that you feel down, and don’t make many (if any) of the changes that you planned. So what can be done to alter that – how can you make resolutions that you’ll actually stick to?

Often, New Year’s resolutions fail for two interlinked reasons – they’re too abstract to really be worth anything (‘lose weight’ is a great goal, but it’s so vague as to be almost meaningless), and they’re quite distant. People often tout the will-power excuse, but that’s not really a factor if you try to make changes based on psychological principles.

Many of the decisions you make are based on staying true to your self-story and a desire to be consistent

One approach is to form a new habit – building on the work of B.J. Fogg and Charles Duhigg, there are three simple steps to do this. Firstly, choose a small action – instead of ‘get more exercise’, opt to ‘take the stairs instead of the elevator’ or ‘walk 1000 more steps than usual’. These are concrete goals that are more easily achievable. Then, attach the new action to a previous habit. In this example, if you go for a walk each day, you can attach the ‘1000 extra steps’ to the existing habit. Finally, make the habit easy to do for at least the first week – you need to practice the new habit with the existing stimulus from three to seven times before it will stick on its own. After a week, the new habit will be established.

A similar psychological approach is to look at self-stories. Everyone has stories about themselves that drive their behaviour, and many of the decisions you make are based on staying true to your self-story and a desire to be consistent. In his book Redirect, Timothy Wilson describes a large body of research suggesting that stories can change behaviour long-term, and one technique he has researched is called ‘story-editing’. Essentially, you write out your existing story, paying special attention to anything that goes against the new resolution you want to adopt (if you want to be less stressed, write a story that’s realistic – if it’s hard for you to destress, or you tend to get involved in drama at home, write it down). Then, rewrite the story, and make it about your new way of being. It sounds so simple that it couldn’t possibly work, but evidence suggests that even a 30-minute session of story-writing can lead to substantial life changes.

Resolving to get some time back could do wonders for your mental and physical health

That’s how you can make changes, but what changes should you make? If you want to lose weight and eat healthier, research suggests that getting enough sleep may be key – it helps lower cravings for unhealthy foods, keep off excess weight, and can improve psychological health too. There are simple tips to do this, including developing a sleep schedule, and avoiding screens for at least half an hour before bed (if not longer). Try to move around more if you can, but don’t bother with the impromptu gym membership – 60% of them taken out in January are never actually used. Instead, find an activity you like doing enough to make it regular, so it’s easier to incorporate it into your life. Revise what you eat or drink, read more regularly, or just choose to give yourself more time. The psychologist Adam Alter suggested that one reason people feel like they have so little time is because we’re always filling that time with phone use – resolving to get some time back could do wonders for your mental and physical health.

Whatever you wind up choosing for your resolution, good luck with it – follow the science, and there’s no reason that your 2022 resolution shouldn’t stick!


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