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New Years Resolutions, Do They Actually Work?

Updated: Jan 5

The holiday season can often be a time of reflection for many of us. Pondering the year that was, the year to come, and on the accumulation of all our choices and habits up until this point in our lives. We often find ourselves pondering big existential questions. Am I on the right track here? Am I living the life I want? What should I be doing more of, or less of, in order to be living a life aligned with who I want to be and how I truly see myself. Its no wonder that this time of year often inspires people to think about their goals and set what we all refer to as ‘New Years Resolutions’. But do they actually work? Well, the science says they do.

In 2002, a study published in the journal of clinical psychology found that those who set a New Years Resolution were 44% more likely to succeed in achieving that goal, than people who were interested in changing a problem later in the year.

One phenomenon that helps to explain this data is what psychologists refer to as the ‘fresh start effect’. That the new year, like other ‘fresh starts’, such as moving towns, changing jobs, ending or starting relationships, birthdays, and others, act as a temporal signpost that give people a renewed energy towards achieving their goals.

The ‘fresh start effect’ was first put forward in a study in the journal of management science in 2014, and also highlights that the beginning of the week and the month are also associated with an increase in aspiration and motivation (we will take advantage of this next week when we look at a framework for setting goals). That these temporal signposts enable our capacity to compartmentalise our past self from our future self, writing off our failures or mistakes as the responsibility of who we were before, and giving hope to this new version of ourselves to succeed. These fresh starts also seem to inspire big picture thinking which correlates with people considering their long-term goals over instant gratification.

Another key factor seems to be the importance of approach-oriented goals, or doing something new, rather than trying to stop doing something. A 2020 study in PLoS One found 55% of participants were successful in their New Years Resolutions, but those that were doing something new (an approach-oriented goal) were 59% likely to succeed, versus those that were stopping doing something (an avoidance-oriented goal) who were 47% likely to succeed. So how we frame our goals to ourselves seems to also be important. There is a different mindset between “I need to lose weight”, and “I want to be healthy”. And that mindset has an impact on our success.

The intention-behaviour gap is also a key component to making your goals stick. Speaking from my own personal experience, learning how to ‘stack habits’ to make following through easier is such an integral part of my own success in achieving any of my goals (and my failures when I don’t do this). For example, when I get home from work, the first thing I do is get my Gym bag ready, clothes packed/laid out, and make sure my meals for the following day are all sorted. So getting to the gym in the morning is as simple as getting up, putting the clothes on at the end of my bed, grabbing my bags and walking out the door. Having the intention or desire for a goal is not enough. We also must equip ourselves with the resources, and establish the norms in our life that make sticking to a goal as easy as possible.

There is another factor that also comes in to play around what I refer to as ‘habit stacking’ and that is willpower. Studies have shown that willpower is a fluid and finite resource. So creating habits to make following through easier, just like the example above is critical. If it was up to willpower alone, I might not make it to the gym. The preparation and habits prior to that alarm going off at 4am are key!

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear on this very topic. It was life changing for me and many others I know.

So, the New Year seems to be a great time to set goals. Capitalising on our human nature, and the human brain’s tremendous ability to compartmentalise our past and future selves. These temporal signposts, like a brand new year, give us all the best possible opportunity at setting goals for our future. Creating good habits, having the necessary resources, and creating an approach-oriented mindset to our goals are also incredibly influential.

Next week, we will explore goal setting a little further, and a simple goal setting framework that can assist us all in setting and achieving our goals.

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