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Hand pointing to a chalkboard showing '2019 loading'iStock / BBC Three

How to keep your New Year's resolutions, according to the experts

For those of you on the brink of falling off the wagon...

Edwina Langley

Are you doing more crunches? Cutting out kebabs? Spending less time on gaming apps? Many of us use this time of year as a period to reset. Because, ‘new year, new me’, right?

Well, wrong, according to most people. At the end of 2017, 64% of those who had made New Year’s resolutions said they'd failed to keep them. In fact, that poll found that, by 6 January, one in five people had failed to stick to their resolutions.

And it seems there’s a gender divide: a separate study found that men are overall less likely to keep their resolutions in comparison to women. Although with the margin a mere 4% (16:20), it’s clear both sexes struggle when it comes to following through on those January pledges.

What is it that we find so difficult? According to scientific research, which looks at why we find exercising a struggle even though it’s good for us, humans tend to follow the ‘law of least effort’ (particularly after a day at work). Which is to say, often, we just can’t be bothered. Who knew, eh?

So what is the key to stop us all feeling like failures come spring? Wouldn’t it be great if, by the end of 2019, we’d found a way to overcome this ‘resolution paralysis’? In that spirit, we asked the experts for the best ways to stick to your resolutions…

Don’t be hasty

Spring timeistock / BBC Three

New Year’s resolutions are believed to date back 4,000 years to the ancient Babylonians. At the start of a new year, Babylonians would vow to the gods that they would settle their debts, and, in return, the gods would offer support for the year ahead. The Babylonians’ new year, however, started in March, arguably a more uplifting time of year to address self-improvement than in cold, cruel January.

“The colder weather and longer nights makes January a tough time to start our resolutions,” says life coach Geeta Sidhu-Robb. “Our bodies instinctively want to hibernate and hide out at home instead.”

In fact, last year, a study from the University of Alberta in Canada found that the fat cells which lie just under the skin shrink when they’re exposed to blue light, like that emitted by the sun – basically meaning that that if your goal is to shed a few festive pounds, it’s actually easier in sunnier months.

Still, that doesn’t mean you should just fester on the sofa and wait for spring before shaking things up. Make January the month that you research and plan (looking up classes you might like to take, locating your local swimming pool, and working out the cheapest way to join the gym) – all of which will lay the foundations for your future success.

Remember the pleasure principle

Let's be honest, we’re more likely to do things we enjoy - so it’s important to find the fun in your resolutions. It might seem difficult at first, but you can trick your brain into finding pleasure in even the most unappealing tasks.

For example, if your goal is to replace chocolate with healthier snacks and salads, try branching out with your ingredients - throw some nuts and seeds into your salad to add crunch. Mix in fruit to play with the flavours. Getting creative with your recipes is one way to feel more excited at the prospect of eating your super-healthy lunch.

On the flip-side, if your aim is to eat less chocolate, focus on how sluggish you feel afterwards. It's all about engaging your brain to try and shift your perception.

As psychotherapeutic counsellor Chanelle Sowden explains, attaching pleasure to a resolution can be achieved in many ways: through rewards, receiving praise from others, expressing pride to someone, or simply blasting out your favourite pop classic and singing along as you power through your resolution.

This technique only works, though, “if you genuinely find a way to feel pleasure from the new behaviour, and feel pain from the old behaviour”. “Thinking and logic aren’t powerful enough,” she says. “We all know what is and isn’t good for us already – that doesn't change our behaviours. It’s how we feel that directs most of our behaviours.”

Use your failures

A silhouette reflecting in a mirroristock / BBC Three

If you don’t change up the way you do things it makes sense that you’ll get the same results. Review your past resolutions: what went right? What went wrong? What would you do differently?

Tim Hayes, founder of a fitness app which connects users with nearby personal trainers, suggests this approach: “Split a page into three columns, in the first column, list all previous resolutions, then in the second column write what the goal was – be specific, including the kinds of times-scales you set for yourself.

“Finally, in the third column, write a list of reasons why it didn’t work. Or, if it did work, detail how long you were you able to sustain [it]...”

OK, stay with us. Yes, this requires actual paper and pen and some solid thinking time, but it could help you spot the patterns that trip you up every time.

Perhaps not seeing big results means you stop going to the gym by week three? Or you’ve started eating biscuits late at night again by the end of week one?

Armed with an honest account of past successes and failures, you can set super-specific and realistic goals, as well as incentives which will keep you motivated.

Don’t over (positive) think it

While positive thinking can serve as the catalyst to help us make resolutions in the first place, over-indulging in it can be counter-productive.

In a similar vein to telling a friend about your goals, “You feel as if you’ve achieved your goal, which relaxes you, and as you relax, your energy is sapped,” says Gabriele Oettingen, author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the Science of Motivation. “Your blood pressure decreases and you feel less energised. But it is exactly that energy that you need to fulfil your wishes.”

Instead, she suggests analysing your goal ahead of time and predicting what obstacles might stand in your way: an emotion, a bad habit, an irrational belief. Then strategise around it.

Say your dream is to play Elton John's Candle in the Wind on the piano (well, your mum might be into it, even if your friends think it's ridic). Don’t waste energy imagining how you'll wow your mum on her birthday; assess what might prevent you from doing so. Maybe you rarely find time to practise? Or give up when you reach a hard part?

Plan ahead to get round this. Tell yourself: ‘I will practise for just 15 minutes every evening. And I will start with the hard part, breaking it down, note by note'.

Break it down

A grid divided into squaresistock / BBC Three

Reduce your resolution into a number of small goals – each one should take just a few days to complete. As consultant psychologist Dr Elena Touroni says, 'losing weight' or 'learning a language' are very broad. Instead, she argues you should create goals which include specific actions, like 'walking 10 minutes longer every day’. 

So, if you want to learn Mandarin (because why not?), your first goal could be researching lessons in your area. Give yourself a short time frame, and when that’s ticked off, move onto a new aim – like booking your first lesson. These small steps are the way we achieve our bigger dreams.

Do it again, and again

It takes time to form a new habit – 66 days, according to a study at University College London. The researchers also found that for an action to become a habit, it was best to repeat it in the same situation. “It is important that something about the setting is consistent so that it can cue the behaviour.”

Getting that 100 extra steps in, for instance, will be easier to do if you make it part of an already-ingrained routine – like getting off the bus a stop earlier.

Change your mindset

A silhouette of a brainistock / BBC Three

Think of your goal as something you’re claiming back - a thing you’ve lost and are now making time for - rather than something new you are starting.

Say one of your resolutions is to read more books – consider this 'claiming back your reading time' rather than 'a new thing on my never-ending daily To Do list'.

This is an example of “loss aversion” a principle established by psychologists Amos Tversky and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, which describes the human inclination to favour ‘avoiding loss’ over ‘acquiring gain’. 

Keep it on the down-low

Finger on lipsistock / BBC Three

Telling others about our resolutions can fire us up and make us feel accountable. But this isn’t always a positive, according to research led by Professor Peter Gollwitzer at NYU.

The research looked at ‘identity goals’, which are linked to a person’s perception of themselves, for instance, ‘becoming a good parent, scientist or craftsperson’.

Through a series of studies, Professor Gollwitzer found that those who went public with their goals were less likely to do the work necessary to reach them, because in telling others, they developed a "premature sense of completeness".

Basically, it made them feel they had already achieved their goal. Whereas those who didn’t declare their intentions were more likely to put the work in and actually smash it, because that was their only way of experiencing "completeness".

In essence, keep shtum. But how easy is that in practice?

If you think you might struggle, entrepreneur Derek Sivers offers a solution. If you have to announce your intentions, “state [them] in a way that gives you no satisfaction,” he advises. Like: “‘I really want to run this marathon, so I need to train five times a week, and kick my ass if I don’t, ok?’”

Be kind to yourself

If you don’t succeed, don’t beat yourself up. Look at what has been accomplished and console yourself as you would a friend, says psychologist Dr Audrey Tang.

Maybe you’ll give in and sprinkle real, not vegan, cheese on your pasta, or make it to the gym only once a month, not every week: that’s OK.

“After all, you are asking a lot of yourself,” Dr Tang points out. “You are trying to form new habits, and it’s not easy. Sometimes, if you’ve really tried but just haven’t made it, it can help (when less ‘raw’) to think about what you have achieved.”

So, there you have it - whether you smash it, get half-way or slip-up at the start - don't forget to give yourself some love for trying in the first place. Before dusting yourself off and making plans for 2020.