After the Christmas-induced food coma, the end of the year approaches with speed so, of course, it’s time to reflect on all the bad (and good) decisions we made throughout the year.
Twenty-nineteen: it’s a new beginning, a chance to start again, to become the person we want to be.
So we take out pen and paper (or the notes app on our phones)—or, after one too many drinks, the closest person we can find—and detail our New Year resolutions. Maybe we want to drink more water, lead a healthier life, budget better, be generally happier …
So, we’ve set all these goals for ourselves, we have a plan. We will be better.
New Year resolutions, as we know them, aren’t a new tradition at all. Historically, the practice of reflecting on the past year and wishing to improve has been around, most likely, since Babylonian times—and certainly since 46BC. This means that we have an intrinsic desire to better ourselves.
On top of this, according to Dr Susan Michie, head of the UCL Centre for Behaviour Change, we wait until we perceive a new beginning to make any change: “The sense of psychological disassociation brought on by a new year makes it easier to separate perceptions of past failure and imperfection from current aspirations”.
For example: waiting until Monday to start going to the gym, or until exactly 6pm to start working on that assessment that we didn’t want to start. These “temporal landmarks” give us a sense of control over our actions, separating in our minds a past and present self, making us feel improved and capable of pursuing aspirations.
So it’s not surprising that, every year, between 45–50 per cent of all adults make New Year resolutions; and equally unsurprising that, as the year progresses, less than half of those resolutions are kept. After just one month, the total number of adults who have kept their resolutions will have dropped to about 64 per cent; after six months it will be below 46 per cent and, and before the end of the year it will have dropped to below 25 per cent.
The simple (and ugly) truth is that the chances of maintaining your New Year’s resolution aren’t very high. New Year resolutions fail more than they succeed—but why do they fail?
Simply because, as Serge Prengel of France’s Sorbone University, says:
“Fighting the power of immediate gratification is like fighting the law of gravity”.
We want something that doesn’t take a long time to give us a sense of satisfaction and pleasure—or instant gratification; therefore, doing something that will give us gratification far away is counterintuitive.
Part of the failure of a New Year resolution is the belief that as soon as it is accomplished—as soon as we lose that weight or save that money—our life will change and be dramatically better.
To make them stick we have to accept that we may not radically change, and our life may not suddenly improve, but believe that a gradual shift will occur and we will be more equipped to deal with life.
Making New Year resolutions can be a healthy way to approach change. It can give us the motivation we need to want to be better—we only need to realise that we don’t have to wait until the next year to start anything.
But knowing that New Year’s is soon, if you want to make (and keep) your resolutions here are three simple tips:
- Only make one resolution—you have a greater chance of success when you channel all your energy into the one change in behaviour, lifestyle, etcetera.
- Plan (as detailed as possible) how you will carry out this resolution—take some time to think of what you want to achieve instead of making it a ‘spur of the moment, drunk-on-New-Year’s-eve choice.
- Be specific—plans that aren’t vague have a greater chance of success. For example, if you want to be healthier, consider committing to going to the gym three times a week at 7am.
“Ideas not coupled with action never become bigger than the brain cells they occupied.” —Sergel Prengel