It’s the start of a New Year and people all over the world are taking the opportunity to re-invent themselves, or make the improvements in thier lives that they’ve been contemplating for a while. On the surface, New Year’s resolutions seem like a great idea, but for most people, they only lead to a sense of defeat and disappointment when after a few weeks they’ve fallen short.

Here’s how you can make the most of this opportunity for positive change this January.

Why make a resolution?

Why Make A New Year’s Resolution in the first place? The answer, is simple: We all have something in our lives we’d like to improve. For most people it’s either to lose weight, be more organised/productive, or to be better with money. For others, it can be improving relationships or to relax more. The start of a New Year can make a great checkpoint for taking action, using the end of the lazy, restful and indulgent Holiday Season as a springboard into a pro-active, energised and disciplined new you. 

Deciding to make the change at New Year can be a double-edged sword, however. On one side, you’ve taken the time to realise you want to make a change, and resolved to do so. A 2002 study showed that, 46% of resolvers (people who made New Year’s resolutions) were still successful in their change after 6 months, compared to 4% of non-resolvers who had decided to address the problem “later”. On the other side, relying on a specific calendar event means relying on an external reason or excuse for change. Changing habits is hard and we often try to force the change reluctantly. Forcing ourselves to make the change as soon as the calendar hits January 1st means it’s we’re likely not ready to make the change yet (or we would have done so already).

So, while resolving to make a change at New Year is more likely to lead to improvement than simply meaning to do it at some point, you shouldn’t necessarily wait until the start of a New Year to begin - You should resolve to start as soon as you realise a change is required, and reap the benefits of your improvement sooner.

Why New Year’s resolutions fail

If 46% of resolvers have successfully stuck to their resolutions 6 months later, then 54% of resolvers failed (read “gave up”) within 6 months. That’s more than half! Luckily, psychology can offer some insight into why these people fail and there are some practical solutions to avoid these common pitfalls.

Will-Power Is A Limited Resource

Will-power is like a muscle - the more we use it, the weaker it gets. Psychologist Roy Baumeister and colleagues conducted an experiment with a group of students to test this theory of willpower. They instructed the participants not to eat within 3 hours prior to the experiment. The participants were then split into three groups. Group 1 was given a plate of chocolate chip cookies which they were instructed not to eat, and a plate of healthy radishes which they were welcome to eat as much as they wanted. Group 2 was also presented with the two plates, but were told they could eat whatever they liked. Group 3 (the control group) were given no food at all. After some time, the participants were then given simple geometric puzzles to solve. The puzzles, unbeknown to the participants, were unsolvable.

Groups 2 and 3, who hadn’t previously had to resist the cookies, significantly outlasted those in Group 1, who gave up in defeat much sooner. The participants in Group 1 had already exhausted their will-power by resisting the cookie, and so had less to spend on the puzzles exercise. It’s interesting to note is that both tasks (resisting cookies and solving puzzles), tapped the same will-power resource even though the two tasks seem completely unrelated.

Setting a challenging task such as resolving to get up earlier each morning and hit the gym might seem manageable for the first few days, but as life throws in other will-power-draining stresses (work, family, heavy traffic etc.) there is less will-power available to maintain this difficult new change and we naturally fall back to our old, comforting, convenient, non-will-power-sapping habits.

For a change to be sustainable, we have to realise that our will-power is finite, just like money, time, energy, and patience, and we have to manage it sensibly or we’ll fail. Managing will-power can be as simple as setting a much smaller, more manageable goal.

Kaizen, is a powerful philosophy based on this very idea. Using a Kaizen approach, we can take smaller, easy steps towards achieving a goal without having to rely on an iron will.

You didn’t set realistic, well-defined, and manageable sub-goals For a goal to be achieved easily, it should meet three criteria.

  1. Small
  2. Well defined
  3. Rational

Setting goals that are too large is a recipe for failure. While it’s fine to have a larger end goal in mind (I want to lose 100lbs), it’s far easier to set smaller, incremental goals to work towards (I want to lose 5lbs). A smaller goal means the reward we feel when we achieve it is earned sooner. This is an important aspect of our Reward System. Accomplishing a goal leads to the release of dopamine, a powerful neurotransmitter that makes us feel good and reinforces behaviour. The more regularly we are rewarded for a certain behaviour, the more we’re likely to engage in that behaviour in future. So by setting a small, easily achievable goal, we can ensure that we’re rewarded for our effort and encouraged to continue the same behaviour.

Having a well-defined goal is far more effective than having a vague, nebulous goal. Compare “I want to lose some weight”, to “I want to lose 5 lbs” to “I want to lose 5 lbs this month”. The more specific you are in the goal you’ve defined, the easier it is to track your progress, to see how much work you’ve done and how much you still have to do. Again, this ties into our Reward System as we have a clear finish line which, once reached, will reward us with lovely dopamine.

Finally, a goal has to be rational in view of your overall goal. If your aim is to lose weight, you won’t do that effectively if you’re following a nutrition program for bodybuilders (who spend most of their season trying to gain weight). The program might be great, but it’s not designed for the specific goal you have in mind. Even though you persevere diligently, you might be paddling in the opposite direction.

You Weren’t Ready To Change

Change is hard, but it’s made much harder if you don’t actually want to change. Will-power, after all, is the power of your will to do something. Understand there’s a distinction between knowing you should change, thinking it would be nice to do change, and wanting to change. Many smokers I know, know they “should quit” but they don’t want to - they enjoy smoking. Quitting would mean giving up something they like, and none of us want to do that. Similarly, we can all relate to fantasising about how nice it would be to be in better shape, or have a less stressful lifestyle, but not wanting to take the steps necessary to precipitate change.

To be ready to make a change, you have to want to make the change, otherwise your will-power is going to be exhausted even faster.

If your New Year’s Resolution involves a difficult change, you can make it easier on yourself by focussing on the positive reasons you’re doing it. If your goal is to lose weight, you may want to focus on “I want to feel good in my body” or “I want to be able to walk up hills again” or “I want to get more years out of my body”. Whatever the reason is, try to keep the focus positive, rather than the negative you’re trying to avoid - “I hate feeling tired all of the time”. Think carrot, not stick!

Checklist for Successfully Achieving Your 2014 Goals

Here’s a checklist of things to keep in mind. If you pay attention to these simple points then achieving your New Year’s goals should be a piece of cake.

Make only one resolution

Tackle one issue at a time. Again, this boils down to will-power, and focus. It’s easier to put your energy into one change than it is to try to change a few things at once. You can always set new goals for yourself later in the year once your current resolution has become habit.

Make your will-power work less

Understand that will-power is a limited resource. Set yourself up for success as much as possible by keeping your goals easy, simple, and removing any hurdles that you can that might tempt you to falter. Don’t allow junk food in your kitchen if you’re trying to lose weight. If you’re trying to quit smoking, drink in bars that don’t have a smoking area.

Start now

You don’t have to wait until January 1st to set a change in motion in your life. Start when you’re ready and don’t worry about dates or how long you have to hang in there. Just focus on completing your next small goal.

Keep your goals small and manageable

It’s worth repeating - keep your goals small, and manageable. This is not a cop-out and it’s not the easy-route - it’s the smart route. This Kaizen approach is far more in-tune with how your brain and body work, so change will feel more natural.

Track your progress

Keeping a journal or a log of your progress can be a great way to motivate you. When you’re feeling a little burned out or can’t remember why you’re doing this you can look back on how far you’ve come. It’s a helpful reminder of how capable you are of making this change.

Practice mindfulness

Practicing Mindfulness Meditation is another great tool when it comes to making healthy changes in our lives. When it comes to New Year’s resolutions (which are really about changing habits) mindfulness can help us to be more aware of our habits, and catch the things that trigger us to fall back into them.

Don’t be too hard on yourself

Finally, understand that it’s OK to slip-up sometimes. Habits are hard to break and you can expect to revert back to your old ones from time to time. Be resilient and realise that these slip-ups are just slip-ups, not absolute failures. You can still succeed if you get back on the horse, rather than giving up the first time you land on your ass. Good luck and a Happy New Year. Please feel free to share your New Year’s Resolution, or a change you’re undergoing in the comments below :)