Many of us made New Year resolutions, and many of us have probably broken them already. In fact, about 80% of people fail to stick to their resolutions for longer than six weeks. Although we don’t need research to tell us that, but research helps us to understand more about what is going on, why we make resolutions, why they fail, and how we might do it better. Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Raj Persaud and former Consultant Psychiatrist and author Dr Peter Bruggen have recently provided a helpful summary of some of the recent research.
There are no surprises about the focus of New Year resolutions. Health and money are the two main areas, i.e. exercise more, and save more money. But it is very helpful to know what leads to persistence in keeping New Year resolutions. People think that there are two relevant factors, enjoyment and importance, but in fact only enjoyment really predicts whether you will persist. If you don’t enjoy your New Year resolution you won’t keep it for long. However important you believe it to be.
What can we do about this so that we can stick to our resolutions? Well it is ideal if there is a way to make exercise enjoyable, when you don’t enjoy it, as you are then much more likely to persist with it. But that is easier done with some resolutions than others. 20% of New Year resolutions are about saving money, and it is hard to make that fun.
Another potential solution, suggested by Professor Seppo Iso-Ahola of the University of Maryland, who has published new research around why we find it hard to stick to fitness resolutions in the Journal of Nature and Science, is to make New Year resolutions habits, so we just do them on auto-pilot.
We all have a few such habits. I don’t enjoy cleaning my teeth, but I do it religiously, every night and morning. I admit I don’t take as long over it as my dentist thinks I should, and I don’t do it as effectively as I might, but I always do it because I know that it will benefit me in the long-term.
But I am not sure how many things can be made routine in that way. It probably depends partly on how long and demanding they are. But there are other factors that are potentially helpful that I have not seen mentioned in the research.
One involves working for long-term goals rather than immediate ones. That depends on will power, and it can be cultivated. The research on willpower of Roy Baumester of the State University of Florida suggests that will power is like a muscle, and it can be strengthened by use. Then there is satisfaction in the successful exercise of will power.
There is also a complex relationship between hardship and pleasure. Though this seems to be a matter of individual taste, there are some people who learn to actually enjoy hardship. That has always been true of some religious people, and some sports people also seem to learn to actually enjoy the hardships their training involves.
Finally, I suspect I really big factor in determining whether you keep a New Year resolution or not is whether it is a purely private matter, or whether you share your resolution with a trusted friend and ask them to hold you to account. That is similar to the method Alcoholics Anonynous (AA) uses to enable people to stick to their resolution not to drink.
So, if you have already failed to keep to your New Year resolution, but want to try again, my advice is to find ways to make it part of your day-to-day routine, enjoyable and find a friend who will let you report to them on a regular basis how you are doing. Then you may well succeed in keeping it.