The Psychology behind New Year’s Resolutions and Changing our Habits 

Why do people make New Year resolutions

Often New Year’s Eve is seen as the party to sign off on the past and the 1st of January (after a possible hangover for some) signifies the clean slate. We’re ready to launch our new, better selves into the new year and dive into the new year resolutions we so energetically set up for ourselves a few weeks ago. So why do so many of us fail in the first few months leaving us feeling discouraged and ready to postpone those resolutions to a later date?

Dr Anding from the Baylore College of Medicine says, “January 1st signifies a new beginning. However, each day allows for a new beginning, and hence it is a reset”. The concept of having a start date (Jan 1st) tricks our brain into thinking there might also be an end date as well, whereas a reset allows for us to develop better habits over a period of time (with trials and errors along the way). If we ‘fail’ in our reset, we just boot things back up again the next day.

The question isn’t to not make any resolutions, but why wait until New Years? Start tomorrow, even better, start today! If you’re feeling particularly motivated to implement a resolution in the new year, why not continue to ride that motivational wave? There will always be a ‘but’, an excuse to start later, so why not start now ?!

The psychology of habits

“Within the field of psychology, habits refer to behaviors that are provoked somewhat automatically in response to cues embedded in the environment “(Clayton R Cook, PhD). Some examples of such habits are washing hands (behavior) after using the toilet (environmental cue), or putting on exercise clothes (behavior) quickly after turning off your alarm clock and getting out of bed (environmental cue). Habits form out of repetition, and while we try to introduce new behaviours (eg: being more active) we tend to not repeat them enough to form a habit
Our habits and behavioural changes have been widely studied over the years and more and more studies have resulted in a vast knowledge base on the impacts that can effectively change our behaviours.
We need cues in our environment to trigger the desired new behaviour. In order to achieve this we need to first become aware of our behaviour and what triggers it. Once we are aware of the behaviour we are trying to change, it is up to us to embed new cues that pose as an alternative to our previous triggers.
For example, if you’re trying to stop snacking between meals:

1) identify for yourself when you’re more likely to open that fridge.

2) If you’re more likely to snack later at night, stick a post-it on the door telling yourself to have a drink of water or tea first.

3) By setting up more and more of these alternative cues and triggers, you’re slowly developing a different behaviour aka the new habit you’re trying to form.

Small, incremental lifestyle changes may not feel like the ‘new you’ ready to launch into the next year, but they have a much greater chance of creating real change. Moderating your resolutions could be the difference between giving up in March and creating a lasting lifestyle change.
When resolutions become too ambitious, we struggle to change our habits, become discouraged when we fail and ultimately give up altogether. So instead of making tough-love resolutions with no room for error this year, increase your chances for long-term success by approaching your goals as a reset and taking each day at a time with trial and error of what does and doesn’t work for you. Did you end up snacking late last night? No problem, re-evaluate why your new cue didn’t work and try a different approach.

What steps can I take to stick to my New Year resolutions if I do make them?

Be realistic

Perfection is unattainable. You won’t loose 5 kilos, quit smoking, be a nicer person or go to the gym every day, by the first week of January (and if you do, you’re 80% more likely to gain those kilos back, have a smoke and yell at a stranger a few short weeks later). Be realistic in the goals you set for yourself… rather than setting a number on the amount of weight you want loose, focus on the behaviours that promote healthy weightloss instead and work from there.

What is attainable for you? If you want to go to the gym every day but you know you get busy at work, set yourself a more realistic goal first (eg: twice a week) and build your way up to that full week from there. Building up from 2 days of fitness to 4, is a lot more motivational than cutting down from 7.

Change one behaviour at a time

This doesn’t mean you can’t focus on different behaviours at the same time. Trying to be more active usually goes hand in hand with eating healthier and exercising more etc. But rather than perfecting all those behavioural changes in one take, focus on the one that you prioritized. Let the other relapses slide by for now, as you’ll get to them once you’ve strengthened your first new behavioural pattern.

Allow for Relapse 

As mentioned before, if you strive for perfection from the get-go, you’re only setting yourself up to fail. We learn from our mistakes and relapses help us to identify our triggers that cause us to ‘mess up’ in the first place and encourage us to develop our new (and improved) behavioural cues that will result into our new habit after enough repetition.
Encouraging ourselves to do better and to learn through trial and error (almost the same way we would when dealing with a child) is far more effective than self criticism and self loathing. Telling yourself ‘what didn’t work for me there, and how I can avoid it next time’ will help you more at establishing a new habit than say ‘you idiot, why did you have that brownie, now the plan is ruined’.

Accountability (tell someone) 
Often telling someone else about our plans will give us a certain sense of culpability that we need to achieve our goals not only for us but for them as well. On the other hand, some of us just want to save face and not be seen as a quitter to others. Whatever works for you, the idea is that you are not alone in this mission .
Seek Support 

The above point brings us to not only telling people about your plans, but to seek support in how you’ll work to achieve it. Perhaps someone has gone through a similar process and might have some useful tips to share. Some of our triggers might be more noticeable to others and hence easier to identify if we speak with them about it….and sometimes you just need someone to vent to when the urge to eat junk, have a cigarette, spend money or any other ‘bad’ habits you’re trying to improve, rear their ugly heads.
Know your obstacles

Just as much as knowing your limits in setting realistic goals, be mindful of the obstacles that often get in the way of our wish to change certain habits. ‘Limits’ talk about things we cannot always control (eg: we might want to spend every day in the gym but only have the time or money to go twice a week; we might want to have the body of a super model but are built like an opera singer instead, …) limits make us work with what we’ve got. Obstacles, on the other hand, are things we can often manage and work on (eg: I eat when I’m bored, I smoke when I’m stressed, I spend money when I’m sad). These are things we can manage and learn to control by finding cues and alternatives to each obstacle as they pop up along the way (eg: drink some water when bored, go for a walk when stressed and call a friend when sad)
Habits are not changed overnight, like much else in life, practice and repetition makes perfect! Good luck to you all, if you already have some resolutions in mind, why not start today and walk into the new year already on your way to new and improved habits 🙂

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