6 Ways to Keep Your New Year's Resolutions

After the indulgence of the festive period, it’s almost inevitable that many of us seek to reinvent ourselves in the...

After the indulgence of the festive period, it’s almost inevitable that many of us seek to reinvent ourselves in the new year. No doubt your social media feed is awash with #NewYearNewMe. And it’s not just online. Television audiences and magazine subscribers can also expect a month of daytime segments and articles encouraging us all to eat healthier, exercise more, de-clutter the home, learn a new skill, be more sustainable, get a hobby, and jump in an ice bath... it’s exhausting just consuming this type of media, let alone actually doing it.  
But why do we set goals in January? And if it’s something we feel motivated to do, why is it so hard to keep our New Year's resolutions? More importantly, how can we make it easier to keep them? 

Why Do We Set New Year's Resolutions?  

One reason is the ‘fresh start’ effect.  

January is an ideal time to set new goals. It’s the first page of a brand-new year. If you open a new diary, then it’s quite literally the first page. As a society, we celebrate the end of a year by reflecting on our achievements and struggles and ring in the new year with our hopeful expectations. While January is one of the more obvious and universal examples of a fresh start effect, it’s not the only one. It also applies whenever you start a new school year or a job. It can be when you move home or start a family. You might apply it after returning from a holiday, after a significant birthday (or in the lead-up to one). It can be on the first day of a new month or even at a time as banal and as random as a Monday morning. You could set new goals or resolutions at 7 pm on a Thursday in September. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter when we do it. Still, there’s something about New Year’s resolutions that makes them feel more significant.  


Are New Year's Resolutions Effective? 

There aren't many scientific studies that examine New Year's resolutions. The Journal of Clinical Psychology suggests that only 46% of people successfully set goals in the new year. Another study puts this number at 8%. Forbes writes that 80% of all New Year's resolutions fail by the end of January. Long-term gym members won’t be surprised at this. There’s often an influx of new members in the first few weeks of January. Gyms get busy, but they often don’t stay that way much beyond February. It happens each year, and there's even a name for it—the January gym rush. But that's not to say that New Year's resolutions are ineffective for everyone.  

Another article published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology suggests that those who set resolutions are ten times more likely to change their behaviour. So, while there's a high drop-out rate, there's also evidence that, for some people, goal setting in January works. What's the secret? 


How to Keep Your New Year's Resolutions


Close up of a white page with a box on it in a diary

Don't avoid things. Start introducing better habits. 

Your resolutions might be fine. It could just boil down to how you approach them. David Robson spoke to the BBC about a Swedish study that followed 1,066 resolution-making participants at the end of 2017. Researchers found that those who framed their resolutions as 'approaches' rather than 'avoidances' were up to 25% more likely to keep them. The study’s author suggests, ‘Instead of saying that I want to stop eating a candy bar every day, I might instead say that I want to start eating carrots each afternoon," he says. "Because that would increase your blood sugar level, and you wouldn't have a craving for something else.’ 

The resolution is less about stopping something than replacing it with something better. David Robson furthers this by giving an example. Instead of saying he will "stop doom scrolling on social media," he'll read an eBook for ten pages when he's bored or has a few minutes spare. The resolution is the same, but the framing is different.  

Instead of saying, ‘I'm going to stop going to bed so late’, you could say, ‘I will read in bed every night’. Instead of saying, ‘I'm not going to drive my car as much’, try saying, ‘I'll walk for an hour a day’. Replacing one behaviour with a more positive one may be more effective than saying, 'I won't' or 'I'll stop'. 


Focus on One Goal at a Time 

It can be tempting to pick several resolutions at the start of the year. 

While understandable, this is often difficult to maintain. Pick one resolution and stick to that. You may be able to juggle several smaller and unrelated ones but keep any significant changes singular. This will make them easier to manage. Staggering your resolutions will also help you work out which are more important. 

If you want to make multiple changes, try nesting similar goals together. Let’s say you want to run a marathon (or complete a fitness challenge or event). Training clearly ticks the ‘get fit’ goal, but marathon runners must also follow a balanced diet, so it ticks a ‘healthy eating’ goal, too. Suppose you have another ‘drink more water’ goal. You can’t run at those kinds of distances without hydrating more effectively. Stack your resolutions if you need to.  


Understand that Motivation is Finite and That It Takes Time to Build Habits. 

Starting is easy. It's what happens afterwards that's difficult. You won’t always want to go. The trick lies in doing it anyway. You can’t rely on your motivation. You must build discipline. Let’s say your goal is to do one cycling class a week. You still have to go even when you don’t feel like it. And here’s your problem: it’s much easier to skip a class or give up entirely than to go and do the thing. Things get easier the longer you stick at them. This is how you build habits, where the real change lies. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen straight away.  Some suggest that habits take 66 days to build, but it may take anywhere between 18 and 250.  The point is until you make something a habit, it will always be challenging, and you can't rely on motivation alone to get you there. 

In the book 'Atomic Habits', James Clear writes that the key to building a habit is to make it as easy as possible during the early stages and build up from there. 

For example, don't say that you’ll eat ten portions of fruit and vegetables a day because that's a big number, especially if you're barely eating one or two. Start small by aiming for two or three portions and then building up as time goes on to four, five, etc., until you reach ten. You don’t have to change overnight.  

James Clear writes that you need to start so small that it's almost impossible to skip. If you aim to start cycling for 20 minutes every day, don't start there if you're a beginner. Start doing 20 minutes a week and build it up, do 5 minutes a day and double it each month. It's better to move slowly in the right direction than to aim too high too soon and burn out before January 31st. You’ve got the whole year to change for the better. Don’t rush it.  


 pink planner with a New Year's resolution clipped to it

Accept That You're Going to Mess Up 

No one is perfect, especially when adjusting to a new routine or regime. One missed gym session, one ill-timed night out, or one moment of weakness (or even several in a row) doesn't invalidate your progress and shouldn’t derail your future efforts. If you've struggled in January, then re-set for February. Use the fresh-start effect to get back on track. You should look at what went wrong and plan to avoid the pitfalls next time. Spend a couple of hours online reading up on tips and tricks to maintain habits and create healthy systems that give you the best chance of success. Don’t wait until next January to make the changes you want to see in your life. If you find yourself messing up regularly, re-evaluate whether this goal is something you want to achieve. Discovering that it isn’t for you is OK.


Be Specific by Breaking Big Challenges into Smaller Ones. 

Resolutions can be as grand as you like, but it's a good idea to be specific about what you want and then break this down into smaller chunks. Following an ideal like "I want to be healthy", "I want to be fitter", or "I want to be happier" is too vague. It's better to follow a road map than an ideal. Instead, you could say, ‘I want to go on a walking holiday,’ or ‘I want to stop worrying about work’.  

If you're hoping to buy your own house this year, don't just write 'buy a house' on a piece of paper and leave it at that. Create a list of every step involved in that process, then tick them off as you go. Your list could include – booking an appointment with a mortgage advisor, opening a new bank account, working out how much you need for a deposit, checking your credit rating, researching areas of interest and local removal companies, etc. 

Tracking your progress using smaller goals will also help you stay motivated. You’ll see how much closer you are to your goals and how far you’ve already come. Small steps add up to end goals, and having a record of where you are in that process can help you stay motivated even when you feel like you're standing still. 


Create Visual Cues 

In Atomic Habits, James Clear suggests leaving visual reminders for yourself to help establish and maintain new habits. For example, if you're learning to play the guitar, don't put it away in a cupboard. Keep it out somewhere you can see it because by making it easier to pick up and practice, you're helping build a better habit. It acts like a visual reminder, and having it on hand makes it easier to pick it up and play. If you want to develop a running routine, leave your running kit out before you go to bed so it’s the first thing you see in the morning. People who want to read more might leave a book on their pillow in the morning because they're reminded to read in the evening before bed. 

Getting an electricity-generating RE:GEN indoor bike and want to use it more often? Keep the Ohm battery clipped into the frame and put the bike in an easily accessible spot with your gym kit. Over time, you won’t need these visual cues because it will be a habit. In the beginning, however, they’ll help keep you on track.  

The new year presents an opportunity for change. It's a time to develop talents, learn healthier habits, grow mentally or physically stronger, and be more adventurous and open-minded. However, changing our habits and behaviours takes time and effort. Setting intentions alone isn't enough. 

It's also worth mentioning that resolutions can also come with baggage. If they don't resonate with you (and many traditional ones for eating and drinking may not), then it's OK not to participate. And while resolutions can be the beginning of beautiful changes in our lives, it's also OK to treat January just like every other month. You can always pick up that guitar, those gym shorts, or a new cookery book in February.  


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