But what's the attraction of goal-setting in January? And if it's something we feel motivated to do, why is it so hard to keep our new year's resolutions? And, more importantly, what can we do to make it easier to succeed once we've made them?
Why Do We Set New Year's Resolutions?
One factor is the 'fresh-start' effect.
Coming at the beginning of the new year (and right after the old one), January is the ideal time to try or do something new. It's like opening the first page on a brand-new notebook. January gives the sense of a water-shed: the line in the sand between the old and the new. But the fresh-start effect doesn't only happen in January. People goal-set when they're starting a new term or a new job, returning from a trip away, after significant birthdays or life events. Even something as banal as a Monday morning or the first day of a new month can ignite the desire to set intentions. January is just this effect on steroids. Of course, you can goal-set at 7 pm on a Thursday if you want to, but there's something about looking down onto a year from the very top that seems to inspire the need to change or that want of a fresh start.
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. The University of Alabama at Birmingham indicates that just 8% do, and Forbes writes that 80% of all new year's resolutions fail by the end of January. Few of us are likely to be surprised that less than half of people fail to achieve their new year goals. Long-term gym members won't be surprised, either. Most gyms and fitness classes are insanely busy during the first few weeks of January. An influx of new members means that equipment can be hard to access or that classes are fully booked more quickly. After a few weeks, however, the numbers begin to drop off. Fewer new users come back, and the gym inevitably returns to its previous level of active members. It happens every 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.
Another article published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology writes that those who set resolutions are ten times more likely to change their behaviour than those who don't. So whilst there's a high drop-out rate, there's also evidence that goal-setting for January can and does work for some people. What's the secret?
How to Keep Your New Year's Resolutions
Don't avoid things. Introduce better habits
The resolutions themselves may not be the problem. It could be how we approach them. In an article for the BBC, David Robson writes about a Swedish study that followed 1,066 resolution-making participants at the end of 2017 and then followed their progress. It found that people 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 then wouldn't have a craving for something else."
The resolution is less about stopping something and more about replacing it with something better. David Robson furthers this by giving an example, that instead of saying he's going to "stop doom scrolling on social media", he'll instead read an eBook for ten pages when he's bored or has a spare few minutes. The outcome is the same in both cases, but the framing of the resolution 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 better one may be more effective than just 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. In for a penny, in for a pound, right? Unfortunately, changing our habits and behaviours can be difficult, and we do ourselves no favours by trying to do too much too soon. Pick one resolution and work at that. Once you've got that down, pick another and do the same. Staggering your resolutions will also help you work out which are more important.
Nesting similar goals together can also help. If you're aiming to run a marathon, that'll also tick a 'get fit' goal. Marathon runners must also follow a balanced diet to keep them in shape, so it ticks a 'healthier eating' goal too. If your goal is also to 'drink more water', marathon running also requires hydration throughout training.
It's hard to juggle several resolutions at once, especially if you're making significant changes to your lifestyle. Give yourself time to adapt to each one individually before adding the next.
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 are not always going to feel motivated to do something; the trick is that you do it anyway. For example, if your goal is to complete an indoor cycling class once a week, you still have to go even when you don't feel like going. Even when you really, really, don't feel like going. Even then. And this is where the difficulty lies because it's much easier to skip it or give up on a goal than do the thing. If we rely on feeling motivated, we're setting ourselves up for failure. Things will get easier the longer you stick to it, but you have first to stick things out. You're habit building in the beginning. Habit is where the real change lies, but they don't happen straight away. On average, 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's going to be hard, 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 making it as easy as possible during the early stages and then building up from there.
For example, don't say that you're going to eat ten portions of fruit and vegetables a day because that's a considerable number, especially if you're barely eating one or two. Start small by aiming for three portions and then building up as time goes on to four, five, etc., until you get to ten.
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, then don't start there if you're a beginner. Start doing 20 minutes a week and build up from there. It's better to be moving in the right direction slowly than to aim too high too soon and to fail before the end of January.
Accept That You're Going to Mess Up
No one is perfect, especially when you're adjusting to a new routine or regime. One missed session, one ill-timed night out or one moment of weakness (or several) won't invalidate your progress, and neither should it derail your future efforts. If you've struggled in January, then re-set for February. Look at what went wrong and then plan to avoid the pitfalls next time. Draw a line under any missteps and get back on track. If you're regularly struggling, re-visit the goal and see if you can break it down into smaller steps.
Be Specific by Breaking Big challenges into Smaller Ones
Resolutions can be as big as you'd like them to be, but it's a good idea to be specific about what you want and break them down into smaller pieces. Following an ideal like "I want to be healthy" or "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.
For example, 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, and then tick them off as you go. Your list could include – working out how much you need for a deposit, checking your credit rating, talking to a mortgage broker, going to your bank, researching areas of interest and local removal companies, etc.
Tracking your progress using smaller goals will also help you stay motivated. It's easier to keep moving forward when you can see how far you've already come. Small steps do add up to the end goal, and having a record of where you're at in that process can help you stay motivated even when you feel as if 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 so that you see it. By making it easier to pick up and practice, you're helping to build a better habit. It helps you stay engaged with what you're doing too. If you're hoping to develop a running routine, then leave your running kit out before you go to bed so, in the morning, it's the first thing you see. People who want to read more books might benefit from leaving a book on their pillow in the morning because they're reminded to read in the evening before bed. If you've just bought your electricity-generating RE:GEN indoor bike, keep it where you can see it. Over time, these visual cues won't be as necessary, but in the beginning, they help keep you on track. Using visual cues also ties into what we mentioned earlier: making resolutions as easy as possible. Nobody wants to practice the guitar, go for a run, or read a book if the items needed to do those things require effort to set up or go and get.
The new year presents an opportunity for change. It's a time to develop talents, learn healthier habits, grow mentally or physically stronger, be more adventurous and open-minded. But changing our habits and behaviours takes time and effort. Setting intentions alone isn't enough.
It's 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 okay not to participate. And whilst new year's resolutions can be the beginning of beautiful changes within us, it's also OK to treat January just like every other month.