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 keep them for more than a few months.

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

The most common resolutions are: lose weight, exercise more, quit smoking and save money.

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

Exercise New Year's Resolution

People set unrealistic goals. Image credit: imtmphoto/

For some people, it takes something drastic to change their ways. It took a medical diagnosis to get me off alcohol and caffeine and it took a pregnancy to get my partner to quit.

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

To be realistic. You need to start by making resolutions that you can keep and that are practical. If you want to reduce your alcohol intake because you tend to drink alcohol every day, don’t abstain just yet. Try cutting out alcohol every other day or having a drink every third day. Additionally, 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 exercising or eating healthier.

do one thing at a time. One of the easiest paths to failure is having too many resolutions. If you want to be fitter and healthier, do one thing at a time. Stop drinking. Stop smoking. Join a gym. Eat healthier. But don’t do them all at once, choose one and do your best to stick to it. Once you have one thing under your control, you can start a second resolution.

Be SMART. Anyone working in a job that includes goal setting will know that goals should be SMART, meaning specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. The 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 resolution. Pairing the resolution with a specific goal can also be motivating, such as dropping a dress size or losing two inches from your waistline in time for the upcoming summer vacation.

tell someone your resolution. Letting your family and friends know that 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 reduce your tobacco or alcohol consumption, 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 foods, it’s really hard for one partner to change their behavior if the other is still engaged in the same bad habits. By having the same resolution, like going on a diet, the chances of success will improve.

Don’t limit yourself

Changing your behavior, or some aspect of it, doesn’t have to be limited to the start of the new year. It can be anytime.

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

If you think this all sounds like too much work and not worth making resolutions to start 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 Gaming 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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