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How to stick to your New Year’s resolutions according to the experts

Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution only to fail after just a few weeks? Goal setting for the year ahead can be easier with the right approach.

For many of us, it’s tradition to start a new year with some resolutions – and for the most part, we’ve gone into January with the best intentions. After the relaxed habits and indulgence of the holidays, a health kick can feel timely. It’s also when many of us take stock and figure out the goals we’d like to set for the coming year.

So, why is it that a recent survey of 2,500 people conducted by HCF revealed that while 3/4 of Aussies set New Year’s resolutions, 78% won’t keep them to the end of the year? Can we retrain our brains to actually keep those promises to ourselves?

Why do we make New Year’s resolutions?

“A new year has connotations of a fresh start,” says Associate Professor of Psychiatry Lisa Lampe, from the School of Medicine and Public Health at The University of Newcastle. “Often the changes we want to make can seem very big and a bit daunting. A new year gives us that extra motivation.”

Research shows that the start of a new year, month or even week is when we’re most likely to feel optimistic about starting something new, which is why so many of us make resolutions every year.

Some studies have even revealed that the "January Effect" influences whole systems, like the stock market, which tends to perform better at the start of the year than at any other time. But setting a goal is only the first step towards achieving it, and many of us stumble at the next hurdle. It’s often not as simple as wanting to be successful.

How can we set achievable resolutions?

If we begin our journey towards a fresh start feeling so optimistic, why do so many of us fail?

“The hardest part isn’t necessarily changing behaviour,” says Assoc Prof Lampe. “It’s actually maintaining the change and having strategies to help support us when life gets tough or we lose motivation.”

Making a commitment to exercise more could be as easy as joining a gym. In fact our HCF-commissioned survey revealed that more than 3.4 million Aussies took out a gym membership they hardly used as part of a New Year’s resolution. So what routines can you put in place that will inspire you to keep going?

Another roadblock to achieving a long-term goal is having unrealistic expectations. You may be setting yourself up to fail if you try to go from doing no exercise to exercising every day. And committing to something that’s almost impossible to achieve can quickly lead to feeling demoralised, which can dampen any motivation to carry on.

Instead, it can help to be more realistic with – and gentler on – yourself when setting these goals. Rather than aiming to exercise every day, for example, start out by making a commitment to do a session of moderate to intensive exercise once or twice a week.

Goals that are too vague can also start you off on the wrong foot. If punctuality isn’t your strong suit and you kick off the new year thinking “I’m going to be on time for work every day”, the goal itself isn’t giving you the kind of structure you might need to succeed. Instead, a better strategy might be to commit to leaving for work 15 minutes earlier than usual.

What does the science say about sticking to New Year’s resolutions?

Different strategies are going to appeal to different people, but the good news is there are lots of different tactics for developing new habits and sticking to them.

Rewards are a big one, explains Assoc Prof Lampe. “There’s a neurobiology that underpins motivation and reward, and some of this happens automatically. For example, we get a dopamine [the feel-good hormone] hit when we do things that we enjoy, so we tend to keep doing it.”

Your mindset going into a new challenge can also have a huge impact on how successful you are, adds Assoc Prof Lampe.

“Often we focus on the importance of doing something, such as losing weight or giving up smoking. But rather than hammering people about how important it is, we really need to give people the confidence and support to be able to make, and maintain, a change.”

One way to build confidence in your ability to achieve change is to make small shifts to your usual routines that you’ll be able to live with long-term.

“We don’t just want to reach our goals, we want to stay there, so any changes need to feel sustainable,” says Assoc Prof Lampe.

And sustaining goals means being prepared to adapt and adjust them if necessary, rather than letting your new habit be derailed at the first roadblock.

“If you can’t face the gym or going for a run, go for a walk. It’s OK to shift the goal when you need to.”

Another way to incorporate new goals into your life is to prepare for the action you want to adopt.

An example might be putting your gym clothes out the night before or keeping the dental floss next to the toothbrush instead of in the drawer.

“If you want to eat more fruit or drink more water, keep a bowl and jug on your desk so they’re right in front of you,” advises Assoc Prof Lampe. “These physical reminders or nudges can help a lot, as can making a commitment with another person. Other people’s goals can be contagious, so commit to walking with a friend or joining a gym together.”

5 ways to help make your New Year’s resolutions stick

  1. Track your progress. Research shows that simply tracking or monitoring your behaviour can help to change it. “Even if you did nothing other than commit to tracking how much activity you did every day, it’s likely you’d increase it,” says Assoc Prof Lampe. “If we track our activities, we stay mindful and it also provides good reinforcement.”
  2. Change your routine. If you’re trying to make a change you need to make space for it in your schedule, whether it’s time to go to the gym or an hour a day of mindfulness. Book yourself into a specific class or diarise some time to do the activity you’re introducing so it becomes part of your regular routine. If your routine doesn’t change, neither will your behaviour.
  3. Get creative. If your resolution is to yell less at the kids in the morning, you might need a creative solution. Think about what helps keep you calm when things get tough. Try introducing some background music that everyone likes or when you find yourself getting frustrated, take a 10-20 second timeout to breathe and reset. 
  4. Develop some nudges. Linking to situational triggers can help new habits stick. “When an ad comes on the TV, I use that as a trigger to get a glass of water or do some stretches,” says Assoc Prof Lampe. “Finding some different situation drivers can help change your behaviour.”
  5. Start with small habits. Research has found that starting small can lead to big changes over time. For example, if you’d like to broaden your social circle, commit to asking a different colleague out for coffee once a week, rather than throwing a party for the whole team. If it’s a health goal, such as a cutting back on fried food, decide that you’ll only indulge at social events, rather than committing to never eating it again. “Some people call these [adjustments] ‘health snacks’: small changes, like drinking more water or walking every day, [that] can lead to bigger goals in the future.”

Words by Kerry McCarthy
First published February 2022

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