Using Science to Stick to Your New Year's Resolution
Wed, April 21, 2021

Using Science to Stick to Your New Year's Resolution

The start of the New Year indicates a fresh start. "New Year, new me," as people would often say, is something they usually follow up with a list of things they plan on doing to start anew / Photo by: Oksana Mironova via 123RF

 

The start of the New Year indicates a fresh start. "New Year, new me," as people would often say, is something they usually follow up with a list of things they plan on doing to start anew.

Making promises to start anew and making resolutions isn't new—and giving up on them is also rather common. Why? Because people often set too large targets like losing weight or spending less.

Fortunately, there is a way to fulfill these resolutions with the help of science.


Top Resolutions

In December, 38% of Americans who took part in a public opinion survey said they had a resolution they want to achieve this year. A significant number plan to make multiple changes (20%) while others focus on just one (18%). 

The most common resolutions people make every year focus on changes in their lifestyles, including finances (51%), healthier eating habits (51%), and improved activity (50%). A significant number of them also want to improve their social connections (30%), develop a new skill (22%), be more environmentally conscious (22%), and live a healthier life (19%).

However, current trends show many won't be able to meet their goals. Among those who reported having a New Year's resolution in 2019, merely 44% said they are still committed to their targets or have already achieved their goal.

A greater number (56%) said they were only able to keep their resolution for less than a year. According to the public survey, conducted by global market research Ipsos, the common reason for not meeting those goals is the loss of motivation (45%).

Having a busy life is also a factor (20%) as well as not having the support needed to achieve those New Year targets (11%). Others simply changed their minds about their resolution and eventually decided to drop it (15%). 

Behavioral scientists say the problem lies in the focus of "what" people are changing instead of "why" they are doing these changes.

"One of the hardest things about making a change can be sticking with it," Claire Garnett, an expert in behavior change interventions at the Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group at University College London (UCL), told The Telegraph. "Making a resolution that is too challenging and unrealistic" can lead to further problems instead of change.

Resolutions involve more than one decision. It takes habitual behaviors tied to unconscious thought to continue motivating someone to eat healthier, exercises more, and be more financially conscious.

Science of Habits

It is difficult to let go of old habits. There are instances when people can stop themselves from succumbing to their unwanted desires, but this denial could backfire on them.

Psychology professor Wendy Wood of the University of Southern California said denying the self of a desire will give it extra fuel to nag in the future. This nagging will eventually be too much, forcing the person to give up.

"The key to mastering habits is to understand how difficult it is to simply will them away," Wood wrote on The Conversation. "But you can deploy a kind of “reverse-engineering” based on the science of habits."

One of these habits is to create friction. For eating habits, for instance, a simple strategy can be putting junk food out of sight. A 2014 study found that people are less likely to eat unhealthy food—even though they can see and smell it—if it's far from their reach.

To continue the motivation to work out, Wood suggested choosing a gym that's either close or on the way to/from home. Keeping exercise equipment may also help in making it easier to do a planned workout.

"Breaking out of bad habits isn’t easy. It takes time and repetition," Wood explained. "But as you work toward forming better habits, you can, at the very least, incorporate these simple reverse-engineering strategies to help you avoid becoming one of the 80% of people who throw in the towel."

It is difficult to let go of old habits. There are instances when people can stop themselves from succumbing to their unwanted desires, but this denial could backfire on them / Photo by: Micha Ludwiczak via 123RF

 

Science-Based Resolution Hacks

Garnett advised setting a realistic resolution and tracking one's behavior to monitor the progress they are making. She noted the importance of making specific plans on managing "tricky situations," staying on track, and getting support.

One way to do so is to do it with a friend. A 2012 study found that planning with someone can help increase the motivation to stick with resolutions.

Another study also showed that it takes longer to form a new habit—about 66 days or so. By the time a person reaches this period, their new behavior will shift to "automaticity, where it is performed whenever the situation is encountered without thinking, awareness or intention and it will become far easier," according to The Telegraph.

This means one shouldn't expect to see lasting or significant changes for at least three months since they began acting on their resolution.

Scientists also advise lowering Netflix sessions. Last year, researchers at Brigham Young University found that people who watched up to six hours of shows in one sitting are more likely to have poor eating habits, are less active, and are overweight or obese.

This doesn't mean one should cancel their Netflix subscription, but just use it in moderation.

"Take breaks from binge-watching," said health science professor Lori Spruance, "set a limit on the number of episodes you'll watch at once so you can incorporate healthy activities in your life too."