After a whole long and stressful year we barely get a bit of a rest and we feel the need to write down a list of new objectives for the following year. We might want to do it, but we might feel peer pressured by all the social media posts of people who seem to have a perfect life that will also be perfect in the following year or we might not want to do it because we don't know where we are in life and we may not feel we are in the proper energy.
It is ok to experience differently the action of making New Year's Resolutions. Maybe we've tried in the past years to set up long-term objectives and we failed and now we don't have enough motivation. But why it is so difficult to do the things we (supposedly) want in life?
Firstly, we want to mention that New Year's Resolution writing is just an opportunity to reflect on our past years and try to outline a plan for the following period. This reflection can be made at any time in the year, not only at the beginning of January. This moment can be scary because everybody is talking about it. Nonetheless, it is important to do it at any time because studies show that people that make New Year's Resolutions are 44% more likely to achieve the goal within six months than people who do not make a resolution but are interested in changing a problem later. (Norcross, Mrykalo, Blagys, 2002)
In the following paragraphs, we want to present some tips that can help us make some resolutions that we can stick to during the year.
1. How do we frame our resolutions?
The way we set the resolutions we want to achieve has a surprising effect on our brains. A researcher from Stockholm University studied the progress of 1077 people that made New Year's Resolutions. The participants have set up two types of goals: avoidance goals which were focusing on stopping or reducing an activity they were already doing (I want to quit eating fast food) and approach goals which involved creating new habits with a focus on the positive (I want to start eating vegetables more often). The participants were about 25% more likely to meet their approach goals than the avoidance goals. We can conclude that focusing on doing and constructing is more beneficial. (Oscarsson et.al, 2020)
2. What kind of goals should we set?
When we start writing, we may tend to fall into one of the two versions: the one in which we outline the final version of ourselves (I want to look good, I want to be smarter, I want to graduate, and so on). The problem with these goals is that they are vaguely formulated and quite idealistic. We might imagine the way we want to be, but we do not know precisely how to get there.
Or, we might write very specific activities we want to do for the whole following year (I want to exercise five times a week, I want to read two books a week, I want to drink two liters of water every day, etc.)
Science shows that none of the above options is successful. A team of researchers studied what is the most efficient way to achieve new years resolutions. They split the 256 participants into 4 groups: a group that made a list of vague reasons on why they want to pursue a certain resolution, therefore they've made superordinate goals; a second group made a list of concrete actions describing how they want to achieve their resolutions, therefore they've made subordinate goals; the third group made both superordinate and subordinate goals and the last group didn't set any goal. The result showed that combining superordinate and subordinate goals would be more likely to help people keep their New Year's resolutions. (Höchli, Brügger, Messner, 2019)
3. How do we do it?
Even if we plan to do new things every day, life will happen and there will be days when we cannot fulfill our goals. It is important not to give up and try again the next day, but it is also useful to develop a system of creating habits that will be almost automatic. Habits can help people adhere to their goals even when their motivation or willpower is low.
Charles Duhigg offers us a very good tool to regain the power of our own habits. He breaks the habit into three parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward which creates the habit loop.
The cue: is the trigger (situational: place, time, emotional state, etc) that determines the craving for the reward.
The routine: the action that we take to get the reward (the habit itself)
The reward: the satisfaction we get after we get through the routine.
The interesting perspective of the author is that if we identify the cue of a habit, we can replace the routine to get the same reward. For example, if we have the habit to eat plenty of sweets at the end of the day, after a good analysis we can notice that we do that often after a hard day at work and we feel very relaxed. We can find other healthy routines that can give this satisfaction and we can replace eating sweets with talking to a friend/getting a massage/eating healthy fruits, etc. (Duhigg, 2013)
Even if we make resolutions on the first day of January or our birthday, this activity is a helpful milestone in our life. We do not have to load ourselves with unrealistic lists of changes that we might not even truly want. It is enough to set a few resolutions that focus on construction, that have both idealistic images and specific steps to get there and we can create small habits that will ease our process along the way.
Charles Duhigg, The power of habit, Random House Books, London, 2013;
Höchli, B., Brügger, A., & Messner, C. (2019). Making New Year’s Resolutions that Stick: Exploring how Superordinate and Subordinate Goals Motivate Goal Pursuit. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 12(1), 30–52;
Martin Oscarsson, et.al, A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals, 2020, PLoS ONE 15(12): e0234097;
Norcross, J. C., Mrykalo, M. S., & Blagys, M. D. (2002). Auld lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(4), 397–405.