Resolutions: And why they (mostly) do not Work

Science Life

Welcome to Science Life: A discussion of the weird and wonderful intersection between science and our day-to-day lives.

It happens like with reassuring regularity: a new year rolls in and we make a New Year’s resolution. That resolution is kept for perhaps a week or two until it gets dropped and we go back to our regular routine, albeit with some regret. It’s easy to see why some people become jaded with the whole experience. Why bother repeating a ritual that rarely works?

To some extent, they are right. The goals that are made during New Year’s tend to be the sort that are hard to translate into consistent actions. The statement: ‘I want to get better marks this year’ may sound simple enough. But after you resolve, you have to undergo behaviour changes that go against regular habits, in an environment which you associate with scraping by, whilst also balancing other commitments like work and friends. This is not easy, no matter what the self-help books say. It takes time – around two months depending on the habit you’re trying to break or form.

Nonetheless, my dear New Year sceptics, all is not lost. Psychologists have been studying behaviour change for decades and have uncovered a few techniques to help you translate intentions into habitual actions.
Have specific goals: It’s all very well saying you want to lose weight this year, but you could lose any amount and it would still count. If you want make a change that is going have a lasting impact, you’re better off having a goal with a specific definition and fewer loopholes which allow you game the system. Instead, ‘I want to lose five kilograms by the end of this year’ is a better alternative.

Know your environmental cues: We are creatures of habit, and our habits are usually prompted by our environment. For example, our bedroom is a place we habitually use for rest and relaxation. So when you’re in your room trying to get actual course work done, your brain is going to think ‘Wait, what? This is wrong!’ and try to get you back on track. The definition of ‘on track’ here being browsing your social media accounts. By identifying environments that trigger the habits you’re trying to break, you can start looking for alternative destinations.

Reinforce your behaviour (positively): Psychologists classify reinforcement into the positive and the negative. Positive reinforcement simply means you are rewarded for a behaviour, while negative reinforcement is when something unpleasant goes away. A kid who is suspended from class is more likely to repeat the disruptive behaviour, because the suspension allows them to avoid the unpleasant sensation of going to school. Positive methods are by far the most effective form of reinforcement though, so start looking for a way to reward yourself when you do well!

Be kind to yourself: If you’re anything like me you’ll feel lousy when you slip up and will start to question how worthwhile pursuing your resolution really is. Try not to beat yourself up too much – everybody messes up from time to time. If you focus the energy you would have spent on self-loathing on identifying what went wrong and how you can do better, then your failure will merely be a part of your progress.
I have proof that these techniques work, besides the scientific evidence. Personally, I am still working on persevering with my own goals. At the time of writing this article I have managed to uphold my resolution to floss once every two days. It’s all about the small victories!

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