New Year’s Resolutions – why they’re difficult and how to make them easier

Image result for christmas lights

Firstly, I’d like to apologise for my silence on here as of recently. After my last post outlining how Seasonal Affective Disorder affects me, I seemed to take a turn for the lazy and went into full self preservation mode – aka only doing what was necessary (my 9-5 job and other important arrangements). I am back today with a short bit to share my thoughts on New Year’s Resolutions.

The Problem

New Year, New Me. After an indulgent Christmas, the 27th December rolls around, and as the sugar high from 2 boxes of Quality Street wears off, I vow to myself to be a better me. More balanced, more proactive, kinder, and most prominently – healthier. I’ll finally go keto, or cut out chocolate completely, I’m going to do exercise every day and lose half my body weight. The problem is, these strong convictions for self improvement are short lived, and as strongly as I feel at the beginning the willpower always wears off. The truth is that although the new year presents a perfect opportunity to focus on oneself and change behaviour, long term habits are hard to break, and any attempt to do so takes patience, planning and clear goals. In general, we aren’t very good at sticking to our resolutions, but there are some ways you could alter your way of thinking in order to (perhaps) make 2019 your year.

Why is it so difficult?

In general, it has been shown it is not our behavioural skills, or support from those around us, but the readiness to change and to question, but not punish oneself, that have been the most accurate predictors of long term success. Successful resolvers are adaptable and controlled in their approach to finding solutions, but even then, around half of these experience at least one slip. It is not about succeeding in the first place – but allowing yourself to learn and grow from your mistakes, and be kind to yourself in achieving your goals.

If you are interested in the aetiology of temptation and self control, I highly recommend The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel, which concludes, amongst other things, that the ability to be disciplined is largely predetermined and shaped from an early age. Differences in parenting style, environment, socioeconomic status, and brain physiology all play a part in the correlation between delay gratification (the ability to resist the temptation of an immediate reward in preference for a later reward) and other factors, such as higher SAT scores, lower BMI, academic competency and general life successes.

The evidence for a biological basis for the ability to be disciplined is strong – studies have shown that the prefrontal cortex, specifically the ventral striatum (an area linked to addictions) displays significant differences in activity between “high delayers” (those who are more able to delay gratification and wait for something to pay off) and “low delayers” (those who tend to be more impulsive and not stick to goals). Interestingly, a study from Stanford university split several dozen undergraduates into two groups, one to remember a two digit number, and one to remember a seven digit number. They were told to walk to the hall, where they were presented with either a slice of cake, or a piece of fruit, The students with seven digit numbers were nearly twice as likely to chose the cake – suggesting that overloading the prefrontal cortex makes it much harder to resist temptation, which could explain why so many are likely to have a cheat meal after a stressful day at work.

Although there is something rather unsettling about the scientific model of willpower, that does not mean there are not things we can do to try and make ourselves more successful in our quest to lose a bit of weight, or become a bit more proactive.

How can we succeed?

From what I’ve read and from what the research suggest, here are some tips:

  • Firstly – be patient with yourself. It takes real time to change behaviours and habits you may have been carrying around for years. Slip ups will happen but that does not mean you have failed – success is not a linear journey.
  • It is a good first step to set goals, the second step is to figure out how you will achieve these (changing habits, implementing a better routine, developing better coping strategies), but the third step is to work on our identity. Easier said than done, but the key to breaking difficult habits is to alter the perception we have of ourselves. Instead of using sheer motivation, we have to become the kind of people who.. eat less, is always on time, is kinder to friends etc. James Clear, Author of the NYT bestseller, Atomic Habits explains:

“Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads us to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become.”

  • Prove to yourself you can become this “new person”, by setting small, achievable goals. To lose weight, you don’t just cut down to 1200 kcals and hope for the best. A better route would be to vow to eat out only once a week, to have 2 portions of vegetables or fruit with every meal or to drink 2L of water a day (although, the evidence that 2L is how much we should be drinking is disputed.. but it’s a good place to start).
  • Have a specific plan. The most efficient way to reach your goals is to have clear end points in mind. In a study on 248 participants wanting to do more exercise, the group forced to create specific plans “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE].” partook in more than double the rate of exercise than the other groups (a control, and one that focused on solely motivational materials as a way of encouraging the behaviour).
  • Implementation intentions – the realisation of a goal is facilitated by forming an implementation intention – generally in the form of “If situation Y is encountered, then I will initiate goal‐directed behavior X!”. In a meta-analysis of 94 studies, researchers concluded that these pathways of thinking provide a robust improvement in outcomes and goal attainment:

“People who form implementation intentions are in a good position to recognize opportunities to act and respond to these opportunities swiftly and effortlessly […] Moreover, if–then planning facilitated goal striving no matter what self‐regulatory problem was at hand”

Happy New Year!

So, good luck! No matter how tough, or how many times you fail, there are always ways to change unruly habits for the better. There is a plethora of fascinating and information research regarding the psychology and neuroscientific basis for motivation and achieving goals, and I highly implore you to read some (maybe this could be a goal too..!). I sincerely hope 2019 is a good year for all, and that you can achieve everything you wish to.

 

– Written by Nancy

References

Marlatt, G. and Kaplan, B. (1972). Self-Initiated Attempts to Change Behavior: A Study of New Year’s Resolutions. Psychological Reports, 30(1), pp.123-131.

Clear, J. (2018). Identity-Based Habits: How to Actually Stick to Your Goals This Year. [online] James Clear. Available at: https://jamesclear.com/identity-based-habits

B. J. Casey, L. H. Somerville, et al. Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2011;

Norcross, J. and Vangarelli, D. (1988). The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attempts. Journal of Substance Abuse, 1(2), pp.127-134.

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

Hu, X. and Guo, Y. (2013). The Promotion Role of Implementation Intentions on Goal Achievement and Their Psychological Processes. Advances in Psychological Science, 21(2), pp.282-289.

Milne, S., Orbell, S. and Sheeran, P. (2002). Combining motivational and volitional interventions to promote exercise participation: Protection motivation theory and implementation intentions. British Journal of Health Psychology, 7(2), pp.163-184.

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