Too many people decide that they want to make a change in their lifestyle and use the New Year as a way of making the required change. Or that’s what they plan to do. And sometime in January, too many people find that they haven’t succeeded in giving up alcohol, losing weight, stopping smoking, going to the gym, or whatever, and go back to their old lifestyle once more. So, how can people make and keep their resolutions?
Firstly, many resolutions fail because:
- They are based on what someone else (or society) is telling you to change rather than what you feel you want to change.
- They are too vague.
- You don’t have a realistic plan for achieving your resolution.
The goal should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound).
There’s evidence to suggest that a person’s chances of success are greater when they channel their energy into changing just one aspect of their behaviour. So, it’s recommended that people make only one resolutions rather than lots.
It seems that humans are driven by ‘loss aversion’, ie people are more motivated to recover a loss than they are to make gains. So, resolutions should be worded to recover something lost, eg an old hobby or a former level of fitness. They also must be realistic. Also, people are more likely to keep resolutions if they can see them as being somehow important to other people, according to Dr John Michael, a philosopher at Warwick University. Making resolutions public can help people keep them because the fear that people will think worse of them if they don’t see them through adds to their resolve.
It’s also important to plan for what you want to achieve, identify any obstacles that you’ll meet, and identify ways round them. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, suggests thinking of New Year resolutions as New Year plans. He suggests that rather than setting a far off goal, eg running a marathon, it’s better to set an immediate plan that you can start straight away. So your marathon goal might begin with the goal of running half a mile every Monday morning, and building on that.
Duhigg suggests breaking down a new habit into its three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. For running, a cue could be just putting on your running kit, even if, to begin with, you don’t go running. And then you get a reward, which helps your brain to establish the behaviour. These small steps can then build up to running a marathon.
Implementation intentions is a technique that uses an ‘if-then’ structure. So a resolution might be to run half a mile on Monday mornings. The implementation intention could be: “If it’s Sunday night, then I will set my alarm 30 minutes earlier, so that I have time to run”. The rule is to identify the situations related to the cue in order to find the ‘ifs’ and link them to appropriate responses to make the ‘thens’. A recent study by Chris Armitage, professor of health psychology at the University of Manchester, found that 15% of smokers who formed implementations stopped smoking, compared with 2% of those who did not.
One of the obstacles that people face, for example with running a marathon, is that running a mile may be OK, but they still have to run 25 miles more. A 2012 study published in The Journal of Consumer Research found that focusing on the smaller number in reaching a goal kept people more motivated. So, instead of looking at the big number left to get to a goal, look at what’s already been achieved. Later on, when that goal number is much smaller, focus on what little remains to achieve the goal.
It’s interesting to note that a study by Marion Fournier, a lecturer at the Université Nice Sophia Antipolis, found simple habits form more quickly in the morning than in the evening. Researchers believe this may be to do with levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which tend to be highest when we wake up. Apparently, cortisol elevation changes the mechanisms in our brain, blocking the prefrontal cortex, resulting in a behaviour becoming habitual.
Gabriele Oettingen, professor of psychology at New York University and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, suggest that people shouldn’t daydream about their future success because they’ll have less actual success. She suggests that it’s better to look at what obstacles are in the way and how to get over them – Oettingen calls this technique WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan):
- Wish – what do you want?
- Outcome – what would the ideal outcome be? What will your life look like when you hit your goal?
- Obstacle – you know yourself. What will try to stop you? What has sidelined you before?
- Plan – how will you get around it?
Similarly, Gretchen Rubin, the author of Better than Before, suggests it’s crucial to avoid listening to the excuses that make our habits falter, such as the false choice loophole, eg you can’t go for a run tomorrow because you have to do X. Recognizing them in advance can make them less powerful, when you realize you’re doing it, you’re much more likely to resist.
And should your New Year plan be flexible or rigid? In a 2015 study, researchers paid two groups of people to go to the gym for a month. Group 1 was paid if they started a workout within a two-hour window they chose in advance. The second group was paid whenever they went to the gym. The result after a month was that group 2 was more likely to stick with the gym habit. So be flexible with your new habit.
In contrast, Prof Neil Levy at the University of Oxford suggests making detailed resolutions is important. For example, “I’ll go to the gym on Tuesday afternoons and Saturday mornings”, is more likely to be successful than simply saying “I’ll go to the gym more”.
And treat everything like an experiment. If something doesn’t work, then treat that as more data for what will finally work. Remember Edison took 200 (in some versions 1000) attempts to develop a working light bulb. Treat any failure as a temporary setback rather than a reason to give up altogether.
For a New Year’s resolution to be successful, it needs to be as easy as possible. A study showed that people who travelled 8km to the gym went once a month, whereas people who travelled 6km went five or more times a month. “That 2km makes the difference between having a good exercise habit and not. That is how our habitual mind works – it has to be easy.
And be kind to yourself. For many people, according to Dr Jessamy Hibberd, a clinical psychologist, the biggest obstacle to new habits is self-criticism. Study after study shows that self-criticism is correlated with less motivation and worse self-control, in contrast with being kind or supportive to yourself, as you would to a friend – especially when confronted with failure.
Whatever you set as your goal, solution-focused hypnotherapy can help you to achieve it.