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Tufts Public Health » New Year's Resolutions » Tips for New Year’s Resolutions that Won’t Dissolve by Spring

Tips for New Year’s Resolutions that Won’t Dissolve by Spring

The new year is around the corner, and you may be thinking of resolutions and promises of self-improvement to begin on January 1st. In 2015, the top five resolutions were to lose weight, get organized, spend less and save more, enjoy life to the fullest, and stay fit and healthy. Many of us made similar resolutions last January, but were unsuccessful in reaching our goal or maintaining our improved behavior. If this sounds like you, you aren’t alone- according to Statistics Brain, almost half of all Americans make New Year’s resolutions, yet only about 8% achieve their goal.

The psychology behind behavior

New Year’s resolutions are a tradition in our society, but why do we wait until January 1st to make behavioral changes or work towards a goal? Timothy Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada, says that resolutions are a “cultural procrastination” to reinvent oneself. We put off changes until New Year’s Day, claiming it is the perfect time for a new version of ourselves, with a clean slate. Waiting may work to our advantage; research shows that setting health goals after significant landmark dates can improve chances for success, known as the “fresh start effect.”

DuhiggUnfortunately, keeping a resolution is not as simple as good timing. There is a psychological component to behavior change that requires a “rewiring” of the brain. We must create new neural pathways to overpower automatic behaviors and patterns. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes the ‘habit loop’ that includes a cue, routine, and reward. By understanding our habit loops and why we are attracted to certain behaviors, we can learn to identify negative habits and create positive new routines.

An example of breaking the habit loop comes from Duhigg’s own experience. Duhigg would grab and eat a cookie every time he went to the cafeteria at work, consequentially gaining eight pounds. He discovered his cue, or trigger, was time of day, around 3:00 PM. The routine was going to the cafeteria, buying and eating a cookie, and conversing with his colleagues. He decided the next day at 3:00PM, he would forgo the cafeteria and just talk to his colleagues. After making this change, he realized the reward he was craving was not the sugary treat, but the social interaction with colleagues. As a result of his altered routine he lost twelve pounds.

Steps to successful self-improvement

One of the most common reasons we break our New Year’s resolutions is that they are overzealous. We commit to too many goals and are unable follow through on them all. Instead, we should be creating S.M.A.R.T resolutions: specific, measureable (and meaningful), action-oriented, realistic, and time-based.

Set a goal that you are committed to working on and be specific about it. People who explicitly articulate a goal are 10 times more likely to attain their goals, compared to those who do not explicitly state one. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), resolutions can be successful if you start small, focus on one behavior change at a time, talk about it, and ask for support. Psychology Today suggest tips for making successful resolutions that include having an accountability buddy to whom you have to report, celebrating your success between milestones rather than waiting for the goal to be completed, and focusing on the present.

Resolution Resource

prochangeNeed more help? Apply science to your resolution. Many of the theories used in public health practice are based on the behavioral sciences. These theories can guide you towards achieving your resolution. For example, Pro-Change is an online behavior change program for health and well-being based on the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change. Pro-Change covers the nine behaviors shown in the picture to the left. After an initial in-depth questionnaire, computer-tailored interventions provide feedback based on each individual’s needs and level of readiness. The self-administered program also includes interactive web activities (games, quizzes, learning activities), a wellness profile that is generated to visualize and measure progress, and guidance on setting goals and making an action plan.

New Year’s resolutions can be successful if they are S.M.A.R.T. In order to stick, resolutions need to be a constant effort and part of a lifestyle, rather than guided by the calendar as a cue to action. Start out small with baby steps and celebrate your milestones along the way. In order to change our behavior, we have to change our way of thinking; overtime, new patterns and routines will become automatic and effortless. Don’t let your 2016 New Year’s re-solutions become res-illusions.

by Sara Suter, MPH Candidate ’16

Filed under: New Year's Resolutions

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