Target practice: The psychology of New Year’s resolutions and how to keep them

(Please note: This blog is a slightly extended and fully referenced version of an article that was first published in The Conversation).

Academic research by Dr. John Norcross and his colleagues has shown that up to 50% of adults make New Year’s resolutions (NYRs) and the most common resolutions are wanting to lose weight, doing more exercise, quitting smoking, and saving money. It’s a time that individuals want to re-invent themselves but less than 10% actually manage to keep the NYRs after a few months.

We’ve all made NYRs that we begin with the best of intentions but within a few weeks are back to our old ways. As a Professor of Behavioural Addiction I know how easy people can fall into bad habits, and why on trying to give up those habits is easy to relapse. NYRs usually come in the form of lifestyle changes and changing behaviour that has become routine and habitual (even if they are not problematic) can be very hard to break.

The main reason that people don’t stick to their NYRs is that they set too many and/or they are unrealistic to achieve. There has also been some research by Dr. Janet Polivy and Dr. Peter Herman into ‘false hope syndrome’ (FHS) that is applicable to NYRs. FHS is characterized by an individual’s unrealistic expectations about the likely speed, amount, ease, and consequences of changing their behaviour.

For some people, it takes something radical for them to change their ways. It took a medical diagnosis to make me give up alcohol and caffeine, and it took pregnancy for my partner to give up cigarette smoking. To change your day-to-day behaviour you also have to change your thinking. But there are tried and tested ways that can help individuals stick to their NYRs and here are my personal favourites:

Be realistic You need to begin by making NYRs that you can keep and that are practical. If you want to reduce your alcohol intake because you tend to drink alcohol every day, don’t immediately go teetotal. Try to cut out alcohol every other day or have a drink once every three days. Also, breaking up the longer-term goal into more manageable short-term goals can also be beneficial and more rewarding. The same principle can be applied to exercise or eating more healthily.

Do one thing at a time One of the easiest ways routes to failure is to have too many NYRs. If you want to be fitter and healthier, do just one thing at a time. Give up drinking. Give up smoking. Join a gym. Eat more healthily. But don’t do them all at once. Chose just one and do your best to stick to it. Once you have got one thing under your control, you can begin a second resolution.

Be SMART Anyone working in a jobs that includes objective-setting will know that any goal should be SMART (i.e., specific, measurable, achievable, realist and time-bound). NYRs should be no different. Cutting down alcohol drinking is an admirable goal but it’s not SMART. Drinking no more than two units of alcohol every other day for one month is a SMART resolution. Connecting the NYR to a specific aspirational goal can also be motivating (e.g., dropping a dress size or losing two inches off your waistline in time for the next summer holiday).

Tell someone your resolution(s) Letting family and friends around you know that you have a NYR that you really want to keep will act as both a safety barrier and a face-saver. If you really want to cut down smoking or drinking, real friends will not put temptation in your way and can help you in monitoring your day-to-day behaviour. Never be afraid to ask for help and support from those around you.

Change your behaviour with others – Trying to change habitual behaviour on your own can be difficult. For instance, if you and your partner both smoke, drink and/or eat unhealthil, it is really hard for one partner to change their behaviour if the other is still engaged in the same old bad habits. By having the same NYR (e.g., going on a diet), the chances of success will improve if you are both in it together.

Behavioural change isn’t limited to the New Year Changing your behaviour (or some aspect of it) doesn’t have to be restricted to the start of the New Year. It can be anytime.

Accept lapses as part of the process – It is inevitable that when trying to give up something (alcohol, cigarettes, junk food) that there will be lapses. You shouldn’t feel guilty about giving in to your cravings but accept that it is part of the learning process in enabling behavioural change. Bad habits can take years to become engrained and there are no quick fixes in making major lifestyle changes. These may be clichés but we learn by our mistakes and every day is a new day and you can start each day afresh. Right here. Right now.

Finally, some of you reading this might think all of this sounds like too much hard work and that it’s not worth making NYRs to begin with. However, research by John Norcross and colleagues has also shown that individuals who make NYRs are ten times more likely to achieve their goals than those that don’t make explicit NYRs. Food for thought (rather than thought for food)!

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Koestner, R. (2008). Reaching one’s personal goals: A motivational perspective focused on autonomy. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 49(1), 60-67.

Marlatt, G. A., & Kaplan, B. E. (1972). Self-initiated attempts to change behavior: A study of New Year’s resolutions. Psychological Reports, 30(1), 123-131.

Norcross, J. C. (2006). Integrating self-help into psychotherapy: 16 practical suggestions. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 37(6), 683-693.

Norcross, J. C., & Mrykalo, M. S. (2002). Auld Lang Syne: Success predictors, change Processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58, 397-405.

Norcross, J. C., Ratzin, A. C., & Payne, D. (1989). Ringing in the New Year: The change processes and reported outcomes of resolutions. Addictive Behaviors, 14(2), 205-212.

Norcross, J. C., & Vangarelli, D. J. (1989). The resolution solution: longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attempts. Journal of Substance Abuse, 1(2), 127-134.

Polivy, J. (2001). The false hope syndrome: Unrealistic expectations of self-change. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, 25, S80-84.

Polivy, J., & Herman, C. P. (2000). The False-Hope Syndrome Unfulfilled Expectations of Self-Change. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(4), 128-131.

Polivy, J., & Herman, C. P. (2002). If at first you don’t succeed: False hopes of self-change. American Psychologist, 57(9), 677-689.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on January 2, 2016, in Addiction, Alcohol, Cigarette smoking, Obsession, Popular Culture, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Insightful post Professor Griffiths

    In addition to psychology, I wonder if there’s a complimentary philosophical angle to keeping resolutions? I’m thinking in terms of “resilience”, maxims and Stoicism here …

    A lady friend of mine has made a resolution to stop smoking and is cultivating the attitude that her cravings are actually a positive thing: they are “poison leaving the body”.

    This reminds me of a mental attitude supposedly cultivated by the US marine corps … that “Pain is just weakness leaving the body”. There’s even a T-shirt!

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