New Year resolutions that work: The science behind behaviour change

 

We’ve all been there. Come the stroke of midnight on December 31st, we declare our New Year’s resolutions to the world: more often than not we’ll decide to get healthy, lose weight, stress less, or save more in the months that follow. Yet later that week, or the next month, we find ourselves couch-bound, eating ice-cream, and guiltily clicking the ‘Pay Now’ button on a frivolous online purchase… or two.

Making New Year’s resolutions is a practice that dates back to the ancient Babylonians: self-improvement has always been a fundamental psychological drive in humans. Research has shown that these days up to 50% of the population make New Year’s resolutions, yet almost 90% of people have failed to keep them a few months later. If we’ve had almost 4000 years’ of practice, why are we so terrible at keeping the promises we make to ourselves?

 

Any lack of success in keeping our New Year resolutions is mainly attributable to setting too many unrealistic goals, and forgetting to keep track of progress. Tracking progress truly is the key to making resolutions that stick. It doesn’t have to be New Year, either – any time is the perfect moment to commit to a new behaviour or lifestyle change. Clinical psychologist Dr. John Norcross and his colleagues have dedicated the past 30 years to researching the phenomena of New Year’s resolutions and effective behavioural change. Their studies have shown that genuine, lasting change only takes around 3 months to implement. Here’s a quick guide to Dr. Norcross’ five-step formula for successfully making – and keeping – your resolutions:

 

Step 1: Psych

Before you start putting your goal into action, it’s essential to define it. Psychological preparation for change lays the foundation for success. Be realistic, and make a resolution that’s achievable. Rather than spreading your motivation to change across a range of resolutions, choose the one that’s most important to you. Take some time to examine the underlying causes that have contributed to the issue, any consequences (good or bad) if you continue with the habit or behaviour, and think about potential pathways to achieving your goal. It can be helpful at this stage to write down your intentions, and tell a friend what you’re planning to change – research shows that simply having accountability to someone else can significantly increase the success rate of resolutions.

 

Step 2: Prep

The major reason people fail to keep their resolutions is a lack of planning. Forming a practical strategy composed of sub-goals before you embark on behaviour change is crucial. Studies have shown that goal-setting can increase the success rate of a self-improvement goal by over 20%. It’s a great idea to use SMART goals in your preparation stage: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based.

 

For instance, a SMART goal might be:

Within 6 months, I will save $950 by taking my lunch to work 4 days a week. I will do this by transferring the $40 I save on lunch each week into a short-term online savings account.

Instead of a general goal:

I’m going to save money.

 

Dedicate some time to looking at any fear or anxiety you may be feeling about your resolution, and deepen your self-awareness by mapping out the situations that tend to trigger your unwanted behaviours. Enquire about fitness classes, read about healthy eating, speak to a financial advisor. Having a contingency plan to deal with situations as they arise will give you the confidence and increased sense of self-efficacy needed to achieve your goals.

 

Step 3: Perspire

Are you ready? Now you’ve completed your psychological preparation and practical planning, it’s time to put your resolution into action. This success of this stage of change rests on the concept of ‘counter-conditioning’, or engaging in behaviours that are the opposite of the issue you’re committed to overcoming. Instead of online shopping after payday, set up an automatic payment into an investment account. Go for a walk instead of indulging in a snack. You may also need to avoid situations that trigger your unwanted behaviours for a while – for instance, going out for dinner or to see a movie with friends rather than a bar if you’re committed to reducing your alcohol intake. These diversionary tactics bring you closer to your goal, give you a sense of achievement, and will result in lasting behaviour modification over time.

Each time you meet one of your sub-goals, it’s important that you reward yourself for your progress. This is called ‘positive reinforcement’ in psychology research, and is an essential element of the Perspire stage of change. Incentives you can use include activities, food and other consumables, and small token gifts to yourself. It may be helpful to keep a list of different rewards, and rotate the incentives from week to week: our brains respond well to novelty when engaged in behaviour shaping. Systematically rewarding your desired behaviour reinforces change in an intentional way, and serves to strengthen and maintain your long-term commitment to new habits.

 

Step 4: Persevere

It’s so important not to beat yourself up if you slip up from time to time! Lapses are the rule, not the exception when it comes to
behaviour change. Dr. Norcross’ study participants reported an average of 14 slip-ups over a 2-year period of behaviour change, yet those who resolved to achieve their goals were able to overcome setbacks over time. It’s easy to feel discouraged along the way – reach out to family and friends if you’re struggling, and talk through your experience. Chances are they’ve experienced setbacks too, and may have some insight into ways you can get back on track. Remind yourself of why you set the resolution, celebrate the progress you’ve made, and resolve to start afresh if you find yourself engaging in unwanted behaviours. It’s your response to the setback that counts – adjust your contingency plan for dealing with triggers if needs be, and stay focused on the light of your long-term goal at the end of the behaviour change tunnel.

 

Step 5: Persist

By this stage, you’ll have a strong sense of confidence in your capacity to achieve and keep your resolution. You may be tempted to revert to unwanted behaviours, but you now have the insight and step-by-step skills required to maintain your desired behaviour change. Once a new habit is formed, it’s essential to continue practicing the healthy behaviours that support your original goal, and retain focus on the benefits of keeping your resolution. Maintaining a resolution over time is hard work, but it does become easier once we’re aware of the psychological motivations driving both unwanted and desirable behaviours, and see practical evidence that we’re capable of sustaining healthy change.

 

New year resolution focus on goals

Staying focused on our New Year resolutions can increase our motivation, and help define the best pathway to achieving our goals.

The evidence base for Dr. Norcross’ 5-step formula for behaviour change is very strong. His studies involving tens of thousands of people show that explicitly creating a resolution increases the probability of achieving your goal ten-fold, and completing each stage of this habit modification strategy can double your chances of long-term success.

If you’d like to read more about this life-changing research, Dr. Norcross has a written a book. If you’d like some support in defining and achieving your lifestyle resolutions, specialist counselling help is also available.

 

 

Behaviour change research resources:

Norcross, J. C. (2012). Changeology: 5 steps to realising your goals and resolutions. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

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.

Norcross, J. C., & Vangarelli, D. J. (1988). The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attempts. Journal of Substance Abuse1(2), 127-134.

Powers, T. A., Koestner, R., & Zuroff, D. C. (2007). Self-criticism, goal motivation, and goal progress. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology26(7), 826.

Sniehotta, F. F. (2009). Towards a theory of intentional behaviour change: Plans, planning, and self‐regulation. British Journal of Health Psychology14(2), 261-273.

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