If you started 2020 with the best of intentions to eat less, exercise more, or any number of other New Year’s Resolutions, then you are not alone. The appeal of a New Year and the prospect of a fresh start prompts nearly two-thirds of us into making big lifestyle decisions at the start of January - ranging from stopping smoking to saving more money.
Making resolutions is one thing, but sticking to them is quite another. If your plans for a ‘better me’ have already fallen at the first hurdle this month, you are also not alone. By the end of January, only a quarter of us will still be keeping up our resolutions. Come next December, fewer than one in ten of us will have fully accomplished them.
What are we doing wrong? Why are failure rates so high and what is standing in the way of us making better decisions that we follow through on to shift our behaviours?
The psychology of habit and motivation
One man knows more than most about the processes involved in making big lifestyle changes and role of motivation in shaping new behaviours – he literally wrote the book on it.
Leading social psychologist at the University of Bath, Professor Bas Verplanken, author of ‘The Psychology of Habit’, thinks all of us have the power to change our ways, but suggests all too often we assume willpower alone will get us there without making any other changes in our lives.
“There’s an obvious appeal in making New Year’s Resolutions at the end of December and in starting the New Year with a new approach. But we know that almost all New Year’s Resolutions are destined to fail. This comes as absolutely no surprise when we think about human behaviour,” says Bas.
For him, actually putting in place a plan of action is far more important than writing a list or saying we’re going to do something differently. “We massively over-rate our willpower and the kind of control we think we have on our everyday behaviours,” he explains. “Generally, people assume they are acting out of motivation and are in complete control of their decisions, but in reality so much of our behaviour is shaped by the context in which we find ourselves.”
For psychologists like Bas, this is the main reason New Year’s Resolutions are destined to go off-track. “It’s interesting to think about shifting your behaviour on January 1st. However, unless you put in place those practical steps to help make these a reality, by January 2nd you’ll find yourself in exactly the same position, surrounded by the same old triggers, which cue all our old behaviours. By January 3rd, it’s all gone,” he explains.
The most useful way to keep to resolutions, he argues, is to take away the decision-making component so that our new behaviours quickly become our default ones. This needn’t be difficult, he suggests. For those hoping to improve their diet, for example, a clear out of what’s in the cupboards and fridge, replacing tempting junk-food items with healthier ones, can be the most important first step. If you want to get fitter, factoring in how you build in exercise to your daily schedule can be the difference between action and inaction.
You need to change your mindset so there’s no question whether or not you will do something. Structure your day in such a way so that it’s not a 'decision'. Once you move away from decision-making, you free up resources.
Bas also cautions against over-ambitious, radical plans to overhaul every aspect of our lives with a suite of resolutions. “Some people make grand plans to get fitter, to stop smoking, to stop drinking, to learn a new language and sort out their finances. But evidence suggests if one of these goals fail, we drop all the others too and so people would be much better off focusing on one clear, realistic goal,” he says.
Understanding deep-rooted habits
Bas started work on habits in the early 1990s. His work was some of the first to show how habitual most of our behaviour is. This led on to further research measuring the strength of habits and, more recently, studies into the idea of ‘habit discontinuity’ – or how we can make big lifestyle changes. Bas’s recent findings on how moments of change in your life can also be a good time to make lifestyle changes generated headlines around the world.
Much of our earlier work showed how our in-built habits lead to tunnel vision where we are not interested in fresh information that can shape new decisions. Put simply, our habits very often close down our scope when it comes to alternatives.
Bas describes ‘habit disconuities’ - using major moments of change, such as a new job, getting married or a house move - as a catalyst to make wider lifestyle shifts. His research has highlighted how these life changes open a window that makes us more open-minded and receptive to change – lasting at least for a few months. If a major life change is on the horizon, and you want to kick that long-standing habit, now could be the best time to do it.
Of course, those kind of changes are rare and Bas acknowledges that most people are not likely to wait for major disruptions in their life in order to make lifestyle changes.
Most New Year’s Resolutions don’t work because we don’t reorganise. A New Year is an artificial start and end point, but unless you reorganise your thinking, other changes in your life are unlikely to stick.
He describes motivation as the driving force behind many behaviours, but dismisses the idea that some of us are, by nature, more motivated than others. “All of us will be motivated by different things, or in different contexts. But it’s about understanding what drives us or distracts us and using this to take control and turn actions into habits.”
Top New Year's Resolutions*
|Stay fit and healthy
|Live Life to the Fullest
|Spend less, save more
|Spend more time with friends and family
*According to Nielsen Insights.
Going easy on yourself
One of potential pitfalls of making New Year’s Resolutions is the impact on our mental health if we fail to achieve the changes we want, or if our intentions slip early on. Coupled with a bleak period of the year, with strained finances post-Christmas, this can often leave people feeling depressed and demotivated.
Bas urges the importance of going easy on ourselves and of being mindful that these negative feelings around the start of the year are very common for all of us. “It’s crucial to be aware that there will be moments where you are weak and you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself. Realising and accepting that there will be these ‘down moments’ is really important. Putting in place a proper plan of action, setting more realistic goals and going easier on ourselves, will put us in a much better position,” he says.
One of his most liberating suggestions, though, is that if your plans have gone awry, you don’t need to wait 12 months to try again. Reflecting on giving up smoking three decades ago, Bas explains: “30 years ago I thought about quitting smoking as a New Year’s Resolution, but then in December thought what a ridiculous idea that was, and why wait? I stopped there and then and haven’t smoked since.”
If your New Year’s plans have faltered, use Bas’ story and don’t despair. With a proper plan of action in place, you can make lifestyle changes any point in the year.
Bas’ top tips to succeed in your resolutions for 2020
Don’t bite off more than you can chew. You’re more likely to achieve one realistic change in your life than many different ones. Set realistic, achievable resolutions.
Change your environment. This is the most important factor. You don’t need to move house, or get a new job, but you do need to change the context you find yourself in so you don’t revert to old habits. Time to rid the cupboards of that junk food.
Break down resolutions into manageable chunks. Breaking down lifestyle changes into smaller pieces and putting in place a proper plan of action to implement them is vital. If your resolution is to lose weight, be specific on what steps you need to take, and don’t rely on willpower alone.
Make changes together. Working in groups can certainly be helpful when it comes to making changes and can provide valuable support. It’s harder to say ‘no’ to others, and its often more motivating working together in a group.
Don’t despair when things go wrong. This is likely to happen at some point and knowing this can help. Act on the steps above to avoid getting demotivated and if it does go wrong, remember New Year’s Resolutions can be made at any point in the year.