According to YouGov, over a quarter of us will make a New Year’s resolution, whether that be to read more, eat healthier, or stop skipping leg day. However, one third of resolutioners won’t make it past the end of January. What is it about these failed resolutions that prove to be unsustainable then?
Well, according to Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh, DClinPsy, a psychologist and behaviour change expert, it all boils down to four regularly occurring resolution mistakes. In this article, Dr Aria breaks down these four mistakes while highlighting the themes you should follow instead. Consider this your guide to setting New Year’s resolutions that will last. Leg day? Completed it mate.
Choose Consistency Over Intensity
The Mistake: Too Hard, Too Fast
One of the biggest mistakes that people make when it comes to New Year resolutions, is that they go in too hard, too fast. We try to get into better shape by cutting out all carbs or through an intense training regime. Now we may be able to temporarily make radical changes, but more often than not, we can’t sustain it and we end up returning to our previous habits.
From a psychological perspective, extreme resolutions often set us up for failure. In the beginning, a little voice in your head tells you: “Listen up. You’re about to give up sugar on the 1st of January for the rest of your life. So you need to eat all the chocolate in the house, including that box of Celebrations, even though all the Malteser ones have already gone.” Ironically, following that voice sets you further back, before you’ve even started.
There comes a point when we ‘break’ the resolution. We succumb to that bowl of Ben & Jerry’s. What happens next? Our mind says “Screw it, your resolution is ruined now. You may as well smash the rest of the tub.” Then when the resolution ends because it’s too difficult to sustain, either we feel like a failure or there’s a sense of relief that it’s over. No more restrictions. No more deprivation. No more rules. Your mind is so excited to be free that it gives you permission to let loose and we end up overcompensating.
We need to shift our mindset to see that unsustainable measures lead to unsustainable results. Long-term gains come from sustainable change.
The key is to adopt a balanced mindset and see that successful resolutions help us to create sustainable lifestyles that we enjoy.
We can achieve this by making small, gradual changes that become habits. Research shows that simpler actions become automatic more quickly than complex ones. So start wherever you are, with a simple step, whether you’re attempting to eat more healthily, exercise more often, save money, or travel more. Once this change becomes second nature, then up the ante or add in another. You’ll feel more confident and you’ll find that small changes compound over time to lead to big results.
So if you’re thinking about making a new resolution, ask yourself these three questions:
- Will I enjoy making this change?
- Can I imagine implementing this change for the next three years?
- Would I recommend this change to my own child or a friend’s child?
If you can answer yes to all of these questions, you’re more likely to find the balance that works for you. So choose consistency over intensity. This is the long game, and slow and steady wins the race.
Create A Structure
The Mistake: Relying On Willpower
Another trap when it comes to New Year’s resolutions is relying on willpower. Studies show that willpower is a limited resource. You have a pot of it when you wake up each morning and as your day progresses, the pot depletes. Every act of self-control uses up some of this pot, whether that’s refraining from ordering a burger or finishing the chocolate biscuits.
Resisting desires isn’t something that we do a few times a day. Research suggests that on average people spend 3-4 hours every day stopping themselves from giving into some sort of temptation. Studies also show that making any decisions, at work or in our personal lives, even if they that aren’t related to temptations, uses up our pot of self-control. And when our willpower is low, the latest research suggests that we experience sensations, emotions, and desires even more strongly than usual.
If you rely solely on self-control to keep your resolutions, you’re likely doomed to failure. The trick is to create structures or systems in your life that move you towards your goals.
So if your resolution is health-related, structure your environment in a way that makes the healthier decision the easier one, whether that’s looking at what you keep in your kitchen cupboards or prepping tasty and healthy meals and snacks in advance of when you’re tired, hungry, or more likely to order a Deliveroo.
Share your resolutions with your partner or loved ones. Team up with a buddy as a source of accountability. Try creating a Whatsapp thread and sharing photographs of what you eat, or arrange to go to work-out classes together.
By taking the cognitive effort out of as many decisions as possible, and utilising the power of support structures, you’re more likely to have mental bandwidth to make positive choices in line with your resolutions.
Pay Attention To The Process
Mistake: Focusing On The Outcome
When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, most people focus on the desired end-result, such as losing 10kg. In sports, this is known as an outcome goal, whether that’s getting a new PB or winning a competition.
While it’s important to have a vision of what you’d love to achieve, the danger of only concentrating on an outcome goal is that when we’re moving away from that goal, for instance if we step on the scales and see the number go up, we tend to feel demoralised and demotivated. Process goals, on the other hand, refer to the actions that we can take in order to achieve the end-result, for instance working hard at training practice or cooking a healthy dinner.
The data suggests that process goals lead to significantly greater levels of self-belief, self-confidence, motivation and skill development.
The most valuable process goals move towards something desirable, which in psychology is known as an approach goal. An example could be ‘working out in the gym three times a week.’ Avoidance goals usually involve moving away from something undesirable, for instance ‘cutting out junk food.’
Now both can be linked with progress, however, approach goals are centred on success and achieving something positive, whereas avoidance goals tend to emphasise avoiding failure. The way that resolutions are framed has a psychological impact. People who use more approach goals tend to have higher psychological wellbeing. On the other hand, people with more avoidance goals experience less optimism, have lower self-esteem and report more difficulty and pessimism about achieving their goals.
Rather than trying to avoid a life that you don’t want, invest your energy in creating a life that you love. To do this and to continue to make progress, allow your resolutions to change and evolve as your life does. Resolutions can be viewed as ‘living’, rather than static and unchanging. So create a vision to move towards and then focus on the process and the results will take care of themselves.
Celebrate The Small Successes
Mistake: Ruminating On What’s Gone Wrong
It’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on what’s gone wrong or the times we feel like we’ve failed. And we rarely give ourselves permission to congratulate ourselves when we take a positive step. The reason is that the mind has evolved with a negativity bias.
Scientific research indicates that our brains select, focus on and are influenced by negative information more than positive information. Negative information weighs about five times more heavily than the positive. Which is why if you insult your partner, saying one nice thing doesn’t cut it. Upwards of five and only then will you begin to even the keel.
Without awareness, the mind tends to focus on:
- What’s missing
- What we cannot control
- Negative outcomes in the past or future
Resilience and optimal performance in line with our resolutions comes from shifting your focus to:
- What’s working
- What you can control
- Positive opportunities now
A growing number of studies reveal that greater satisfaction with exercise or weight loss is significantly associated with successfully maintaining that exercise or weight loss. In other words, the happier you are with your results, the more likely you are to keep them.
A simple strategy is to pay attention to what’s going well, whether that’s an action you’ve taken or any positive feelings or changes. Celebrate the small successes. Olympic athletes use this approach to stay motivated during months of gruelling training in preparation for competition day.
At the end of each day you could even write down three things that went well and why they went well. One study found that this led to increased happiness at the time as well as six months later! You could even share your insights with a loved one, which might draw you closer and strengthen your connection.
You can train your brain to see the silver linings and adopt a more optimistic outlook. Not only will you be more likely to act in line with your resolutions, but decades of research has found that optimistic thinkers have healthier hearts and lungs, stronger immune systems, a faster rate of recovery from surgery, greater resilience to stress, and a higher quality of life
We will all face setbacks and feel thrown by stressful work and family circumstances. The good news is that studies reveal that optimists are less likely to avoid troubling situations and more likely to find effective strategies to cope and deal with difficulties. By addressing specific problems head-on, you’re more likely to feel an empowered sense of control and take ownership of your resolutions and your actions.