So, we’re one week into the new year. Surprise surprise, turns out we can’t kiss goodbye the trappings of 2020 as easily as we could the year itself. If you’re anything like me, you may be frustrated by a shelving of some plans or goals and a sense of lack of control. What can we do then? Well, perhaps you should consider making some good ol’ New Years’ Resolutions, focusing on the things that you CAN exert power over. Research suggests they can be more useful than you may think. Shift your focus a little from overriding circumstances and think, what would make your daily life a bit better in the current climate?
- According to the limited research we have, new years’ resolutions may be more useful than you expect- 46-55% people rate themselves as successfully fulfilling their resolutions, at least in the short term.
- It’s approximated that setting a resolution makes people ten times more likely to successfully institute change.
- Your success with a resolution can be affected by a number of factors, such as the type of goal you set and where your motivational focus lies, how you respond to set backs, and social support.
Why bother with new years’ resolutions?
Many of us (myself included) tend to hold a belief that new year’s resolutions don’t work. This in part comes from relatable anecdotes of setting up resolutions only to have slipped up in the first days or weeks. If you view this as a failure- as many of us tend to do- you’re likely to be discouraged and quit.
The research into new years’ resolutions is admittedly scant, but what we do have suggests that they may be more effective than you’d think. A randomised controlled trial published in just December of last year (2020) found that 55% of 1066 people reported themselves as successful a whole year after making their resolution. Other articles have reported both lower rates of success (for example, a 2002 paper found that 46% of people reported success at 6 months), and that this short-term success tends to drop off in the long-term. However, most studies are limited by short periods of follow up.
The higher success rate reported in the 2020 study could possibly be related to that fact participants here had to sign themselves up, which may have been reflective of greater motivation. The support and follow up provided in this study may also have enhanced their results.
Of course, these studies should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt as they employ self-report measures, which are known to not always be perfectly objective or accurate. Future studies should encourage people to make goals as objectively as possible. Other research limitations include that most of the data comes from small studies, polls and market research reports, which also tend to be limited in terms of follow-up with participants. Furthermore, only a narrow range of resolutions have been examined.
As bleeding obvious a statement this is, it’s still worth noting that you’re much more likely to create changes by making a resolution than simply desiring change. The 2002 study found that resolvers were approximately 10 times more successful than those with a “oh yeah, I suppose I’d like to…” attitude (more formally known as those in the precontemplation stage of change).
Increase the power of your resolutions
Not all resolutions have equal chances of being successful. There are things you can do to assist your way to success. For example:
- When you slip up, be compassionate towards yourself and view it as a part of the process of change and something to learn from, rather than a ‘failure’. Acknowledge that you’re human and that change takes time. Being harshly critical actually diminishes your capacity to ‘get back on the horse’.
- The above also applies if you’ve made this, or similar resolutions, before. It is common for people to create sustainable change after several previous attempts.
- Focus on positive things you want to achieve, rather than negative things you want to avoid. In the 2020 published randomised controlled trial, it was found the group of people who focused on achieving a desirable outcome were much more successful than those who were motivated by avoiding a negative outcome or failure. So, if you want to improve your eating patterns, for example, you could frame it as wanting to eat better rather than eating less junk. More specifically, you might aim for increasing your fruit and vegetable intake rather than focusing on eating less take-away… Or when you’re in a situation where you often eat poorly, the goal could be to choose a nutritious option X rather than telling yourself to avoid eating the unhealthy option Y.
- Share your goals with supportive people who will follow up with you. The higher rate of success seen in the 2020 study compared to others may partly be due to the support and follow up offered to participants.
- Like any goals, New Years’ Resolutions should be SMART: Specific. Measurable. Achievable. Realistic. Time Limited.
- They should also address something that’s important to you and will have a concrete impact on your daily life, particularly in this season of uncertainty. For example, some of my plans are unfeasible at present. Getting caught up in the stress and disappointment of this has made me realise that mindfulness is a weakness of mine, so I’m working on that. I’ve started following a structured yoga and meditation program for January to get myself in the habit of practicing these skills.
The body of research provides mixed results regarding various other resolution-related dimensions, which just shows a need for more thorough examination.
Regardless of how 2021 has started for you, there’s still plenty of time to make it a healthier year. Now is as good a time as any to make a resolution. Whatever your wishes, setting your intention to take action makes a significant difference. Think about what will help you live more healthily, happily and fully… and set up a realistic goal in that domain. It may come as no surprise that common resolutions include quitting smoking, eating better, exercising more, and losing weight including getting gut health in order. However, you don’t need to limit yourself to that; it could also be anything from drinking 8 glasses of water a day to making time for regular grounding.
What will be your resolution and how will you measure your progress towards it?
Breines, J.G., and Chen, S. (2012). Self-Compassion Increases Self-Improvement Motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 38(9):1133-1143. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167212445599
Norcross, J.C., Mrykalo, M.S. and Blagys, M.D. (2002), Auld lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self‐reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers. J. Clin. Psychol., 58: 397-405. https://doi-org.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/10.1002/jclp.1151
Oscarsson M, Carlbring P, Andersson G, Rozental A (2020) A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PLOS ONE 15(12): e0234097. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0234097