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Why New Year’s resolutions don’t work (and how to create lasting change)

With turkey and stuffing reserves all but gone, the New Year’s holidays present a chance to reflect on the year gone by and envisage what we want our lives to look like in forthcoming 365 days.

Among the top resolutions are losing weight, spending more time with family, quitting smoking, managing money better and reducing debt.

By New Year’s Day, a sluice gate of information about how to stick to your resolutions has been opened. Claims of transformation begin to make the rounds on social media and motivational gurus miraculously crawl out of the woodwork. By mid-January, gyms are filled with countless people hoping to start the year on a strong footing (much to the annoyance of regular gym-goers). By February, it’s business as usual at most gyms as people gradually revert to their usual ways.

 

 

According to a study by The University of Scranton’s Journal of Clinical Psychology, a mere 39% of people in their twenties achieve their resolution goals each year. By the time you reach your fifties, you’re only 14% likely to make your goals a reality.

So why do so many people participate in this “cultural procrastination” in an effort to reinvent themselves?

To understand why, we need to look the two lines of brain and behavioural sciences that influence New Year’s Resolutions: the science of habits and the science of self-stories.

Let’s start with habits.

New Year’s resolutions often revolve around what are known as automatic, conditioned responses.

It could be that after getting out of bed in the morning, you purchase a coffee made to your particular liking and while you’re at it, a ‘pain au chocolat’. Plopping on the sofa in front of the TV after work might be another one. In any case, you are likely to have hundreds of habits formed over a number of years.

For resolutions to work, it is necessary to make changes to the choices that we make and avoid the pitfall of unconsciously reverting to choices that we are used to making.

Even the word “resolution” is problematic, as by definition it implies a firm, unwavering decision to do, or not do, something. This does not allow for fluidity and flexibility in the small decisions that add up to overall goals.

Top tips to help you stick to your new habits

  • Break everything up into micro-goals: “Getting fit and healthy” might be the overall aim, but unless you have bitesize achievements to help you get there, you’re likely to revert to existing habits. Setting a goal to drink a fibrous smoothie every morning and walk further than you normally do is more likely to help you form those habits as part of your daily routine.
  • Attach a new action to a previous habit: Another reason why New Year’s goals fail to materialise is because they often involve drastic change at the beginning. This can be a shock to the system and ultimately means we’re kidding ourselves. By figuring out what habits you already have, it allows us to make gradual changes to them. If your existing habit is “going for a walk twice a week”, then this becomes a cue to for a new habit: “walking for 10 minutes more”. Your habit of “waking into the kitchen every morning” becomes the stimulus for a new habit of “walking into the kitchen and making a fibrous smoothie”.
  • Make your goals easy to achieve: According to studies, in order to form a conditioned response, we need to perform the new habit 3 to 7 times to make it stick. To make this process as successful as possible, it is important to make the first 3 to 7 times as easy as possible.

The science of self-stories

Everyone has an idea of who they are, what makes them tick and stories that drive their behaviour. Thousands of past experiences shape what we consider to be important to us and our “self-stories” have a powerful impact on the kinds of decisions we make.

One of the most effective ways to bring about long term behavioural change is to alter, or edit your story. Do you want to be more optimistic? Then operate a self-story that says you are an optimistic person. Want to join the Chess Society? Then operate a self-story that says you are an excellent strategist.

Top tips to help you achieve lasting change

  • Practice self-awareness: Emotions have a powerful effect on our decision making process, so acknowledging how we feel can help us determine if feeling that way will help us make the kinds of decisions that will help us get where want to be. If you eat when your stressed then it probably won’t help you lose weight unless you consciously decide to alter the decisions you make when you feel that way.
  • Change old, negative beliefs into new, empowering ones: We all hold unconscious beliefs that we have learned as children from our parents, teachers, leaders or the media. Our belief system largely determine our actions, so if you believe you’re “too old to change career” then you’ll probably end up doing the same thing. If you create an affirmation that reflects a belief you want to adopt, such as “I’m great at adapting to new environments and can put my mind to anything,” then you can find evidence to support this.
  • Set realistic goals and take micro steps to achieve them: Setting micro-goals helps us to understand that only the actions we take in the present moment lead to the life you desire. It also makes long-term goals easier to achieve. Start the day by getting out of bed and go from there.
  • Visualize, visualize, visualize: Unless you’re lucky enough to win the lottery, your lifestyle won’t change overnight. Visualizing the life you want, or the person you want to be won’t change your life overnight either, but it will allow your brain to get used to the idea of your goals. And that is more likely to drive you toward making the kinds of decisions that will take you there.

Finally, if you slip up, remember that it’s a process of change and not an excuse to wait until the next New Year to do anything about it.

“Create the highest, grandest vision possible for your life, because you become what you believe.” – Oprah Winfrey

 

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