Although we see December as the month to be jolly and sing along to “All I want for Christmas is You”, it is also an exciting time when we sit down, grab a pen and paper, and write down what we would like to achieve in the next year. We often look for advice on how to make good New Year’s resolutions and stick to them.
The thought of a fresh start with the beginning of the New Year gives us the sense that nothing is too big or too difficult to achieve, but is it really?
Writing New Year’s resolutions has become somewhat of a tradition for many of us. It is so popular, that a study found that nearly half of all adults write resolutions for the New Year . However, it is also evident that fewer than ten percent of us manage to keep them for more than a few months. This raises the question – How do we stick to our resolutions?
Here are some tips backed by psychological research and theory:
We all want to make New Year’s resolutions about everything that we are not happy within our lives. However, we often make resolutions that are so broad and big that we then find difficult to keep. Therefore, it is important to start small.
Make resolutions that you think you can keep. If something seems too big, then split it into smaller and more achievable goals. If aim to start going to the gym, then start by going there three to four days a week. This would be a lot more achievable than pushing yourself to work out every day of the week. If you want to start eating healthier, then start by making small changes in your diet, like skipping dessert. Choosing to make small, positive changes can benefit your confidence. As your confidence grows, so will the goals you create for yourself. Making resolutions that are achievable lowers your chances of failure.
A recent study showed that people who had to travel 8 kilometres to the gym only went once a month, whereas those whose gym was 6 kilometres away from their home, visited it five or more times in one month . “Those 2 kilometres make the difference between having a good exercise habit and not. That is how our habitual mind works – it has to be easy,” says Wendy Wood, Professor of Psychology and Business at the University of Southern California. The less you have to push yourself to practice your new habit, the more likely you are to stick to it.
Doing five push-ups a day would likely not change much about your fitness. If your New Year’s resolution is to get in shape then you should be ready to do more and keep going, even when things become challenging. It requires substantial effort to push yourself and go for that extra push-up even when you start feeling tired and your muscles get achy. However, research suggests that practicing this kind of effortful task self-control it helps you increase your general self-control . The study, which investigated smoking cessation, found that practicing small acts of self-control led to an improvement in self-control performance. 122 smokers practiced small acts of self-control for 2 weeks prior to quitting smoking. As a result, they remained abstinent for longer compared to the other smokers who practised tasks, which did not require self-control.
Whilst we often put our ability to ignore temptations down to our capacity to exercise self-control in the moment, psychologists suggest that actively planning for temptation may be better than just responding to it . Thus, achieving your goal would be easier if you adopt proactive rather than reactive strategies of self-control. A further study also supports that idea, showing how more “planful” participants were more likely to consistently go to the gym and successfully build their habit of going to the gym . Altogether, to stick with your resolutions, planning how you are going to deal with urges before they arise may be a better way of creating new habits than hoping for the best when temptation strikes.
Many of us have been conditioned to be critical and harsh to ourselves when we make mistakes and to think that we do not deserve compassion if we do something wrong. We instinctively beat ourselves up for failing to meet our goals. That mindset, ultimately, makes us abandon our goals altogether.
However, research suggests that having self-compassion is the missing key we need to reach our goals . Treating ourselves kindly is likely to help us correct our mistakes and re-engage with our goals after veering off course. Self-criticism, on the other hand, is linked to stress, rumination, and procrastination, all of which lower motivation and worsen self-control. So, when you fail to go to the gym for a week, you should aim to recognise the common humanity in your actions and treat yourself with kind words. By doing so, you would intentionally be transforming negative emotions into positive ones. Being able to regulate your emotions and maintain your belief in your ability to change is an important part of being self-compassionate and facilitates goal pursuit. Do not forget that you can be nice to yourself and still get things done.
When Shelly coined the #2020yearofkindness earlier this year we would not have known what would happen. Kindness is turning out to be essential to us all, that is why we think it is important to include it to our resolutions this year. Give someone a compliment, offer to pick up your neighbour’s groceries, ask your colleagues how they are doing. Research  shows that devoting resources to others, rather than having more and more for yourself, brings about lasting well-being, which we would argue that it should be on the top of this year’s resolutions.
This year let us break this vicious circle of unfulfilled resolutions and take the time to set goals that are achievable and create the kind of mindset that helps us reach them. If you think that this sounds like too much work, bear in mind that people who make New Year’s resolutions are ten times more likely to achieve them than those who do not .
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