How to keep your New Year’s resolutions

The fireworks display in London on New Year’s Day (Reuters)
The fireworks display in London on New Year’s Day (Reuters)

We are creatures of habit. Between a third and half of our behaviour is habitual, according to research estimates. Unfortunately, our bad habits compromise our health, wealth and happiness.

On average, it takes 66 days to form a habit. But positive behavioural change is harder than self-help books would have us believe. Only 40 per cent of people can sustain their new year’s resolution after six months, while only 20 per cent of dieters maintain long-term weight loss.

Education does not effectively promote behaviour change. A review of 47 studies found that it’s relatively easy to change a person’s goals and intentions but it’s much harder to change how they behave. Strong habits are often activated unconsciously in response to social or environmental cues – for example, we go to the supermarket about 211 times a year, but most of our purchases are habitual.

With all this in mind, here are five ways to help you keep your new year’s resolutions – whether that’s taking better care of your body or your bank balance.

1. Prioritise your goals

Willpower is a finite resource. Resisting temptation drains our willpower, leaving us vulnerable to influences that reinforce our impulsive behaviours.

A common mistake is being overly ambitious with our new year resolutions. It’s best to prioritise goals and focus on one behaviour. The ideal approach is to make small, incremental changes that replace the habit with a behaviour that supplies a similar reward. Diets that are too rigid, for example, require a lot of willpower to follow.

2. Change your routines

Habits are embedded within routines. So disrupting routines can prompt us to adopt new habits. For example, major life events like changing jobs, moving house or having a baby all promote new habits since we are forced to adapt to new circumstances.

While routines can boost our productivity and add stability to our social lives they should be chosen with care. People who live alone have stronger routines so throwing a dice to randomise your decision making could help you disrupt your habits.

Our environment also affects our routines. For example, without giving it any thought, we eat popcorn at the cinema but not in a meeting room. Similarly, reducing the size of your storage containers and the plates you serve food on can help to tackle overeating.

3. Monitor your behaviour

“Vigilant monitoring” appears to be the most effective strategy for tackling strong habits. This is where people actively monitor their goals and regulate their behaviours in response to different situations. A meta-analysis of 100 studies found that self-monitoring was the best of 26 different tactics used to promote healthy eating and exercise activities.

Another meta-analysis of 94 studies informs us that “implementation intentions” are also highly effective. These personalised “if X then Y” rules can counter the automatic activation of habits. For example, if I feel like eating chocolate, I will drink a glass of water.

Implementation intentions with multiple options are very effective since they provide the flexibility to adapt to situations. For example, “if I feel like eating chocolate I will (a) drink a glass of water, (b) eat some fruit; or (c) go for a walk”.

The 25 biggest cultural moments of the decade

One Direction form (2010): Of Simon Cowell’s many contributions to civilisation – see also Jedward, Susan Boyle and Piers Morgan’s career in America – surely the most enduring will be the alliance of Harry, Niall, Louis, Zayn and… the other one (sorry, hi Liam…we’ve just remembered you). It was during the 2010 run of The X Factor that Cowell decided to assemble a Voltron-like pop behemoth out of five skinny teens slathered in Brylcreem. What followed was the 21st-century version of The Beatles, with better hair, tighter trousers and not a single memorable tune (go on, hum one – we dare you). (Getty Images)
One Direction form (2010): Of Simon Cowell’s many contributions to civilisation – see also Jedward, Susan Boyle and Piers Morgan’s career in America – surely the most enduring will be the alliance of Harry, Niall, Louis, Zayn and… the other one (sorry, hi Liam…we’ve just remembered you). It was during the 2010 run of The X Factor that Cowell decided to assemble a Voltron-like pop behemoth out of five skinny teens slathered in Brylcreem. What followed was the 21st-century version of The Beatles, with better hair, tighter trousers and not a single memorable tune (go on, hum one – we dare you). (Getty Images)
David Fincher releases The Social Network (2010): “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo
David Fincher releases The Social Network (2010): “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo
Ed Sheeran releases
Ed Sheeran releases
REM split (2011): When the second biggest band of their generation (they never quite snatched the gong from U2) announced they were calling it quits, the world responded with a shrug. A decade on, REM’s relevance has shrunk further (did you care about the recent reissue of Monster?). The cultural baton has passed from rock to pop and the era of the mega band is over. Today, it feels faintly surreal it was ever a thing in the first place. (AFP via Getty Images)
REM split (2011): When the second biggest band of their generation (they never quite snatched the gong from U2) announced they were calling it quits, the world responded with a shrug. A decade on, REM’s relevance has shrunk further (did you care about the recent reissue of Monster?). The cultural baton has passed from rock to pop and the era of the mega band is over. Today, it feels faintly surreal it was ever a thing in the first place. (AFP via Getty Images)
The Avengers is released (2012): Disney accountants…assemble! It was the formula that couldn’t fail – and yet the Avengers nonetheless succeeded beyond the wildest expectations of Marvel and its Mouse Masters (Disney having acquired Marvel in 2009 for $4.24bn). Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, Hulk and Loki bounded across the screen together – destined to become as iconic to this generation as Luke, Leia, ET and the Ghostbusters were to previous ones. Cinema would never be the same again – to the delight of geeks everywhere and the bafflement of Martin Scorsese and many others. (Marvel)
The Avengers is released (2012): Disney accountants…assemble! It was the formula that couldn’t fail – and yet the Avengers nonetheless succeeded beyond the wildest expectations of Marvel and its Mouse Masters (Disney having acquired Marvel in 2009 for $4.24bn). Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, Hulk and Loki bounded across the screen together – destined to become as iconic to this generation as Luke, Leia, ET and the Ghostbusters were to previous ones. Cinema would never be the same again – to the delight of geeks everywhere and the bafflement of Martin Scorsese and many others. (Marvel)
Danny Boyle’s Olympics Opening Ceremony (2012): How at ease with itself and its place in the world Britain seemed. It was the summer of 2012 and the Trainspotting director had fired the starter pistol on the London Olympics with a stunning, yet never vainglorious, celebration of British history and culture. A mere four years on, the Brexit referendum would see the nation tearing itself apart, the exceptionalist strain in the national psyche laid bare. In hindsight, Boyle’s Olympics extravaganza was a vision of a utopian Britishness that never quite existed. (Getty)
Danny Boyle’s Olympics Opening Ceremony (2012): How at ease with itself and its place in the world Britain seemed. It was the summer of 2012 and the Trainspotting director had fired the starter pistol on the London Olympics with a stunning, yet never vainglorious, celebration of British history and culture. A mere four years on, the Brexit referendum would see the nation tearing itself apart, the exceptionalist strain in the national psyche laid bare. In hindsight, Boyle’s Olympics extravaganza was a vision of a utopian Britishness that never quite existed. (Getty)
Disney buys Star Wars (2012): Having swooped in for Marvel, the Magic Kingdom turned its tractor-beam on Lucasfilm. Star Wars was duly sucked into the mothership for a bargain $2.2bn. And then – cue swarming Tie-Fighter noises – came a galaxy of new products. The Force Awakens (2015) was an enjoyable remix of the original Star Wars. But follow-up The Last Jedi crashed and burned having attempted to fix a franchise that wasn’t broken. The next phase of Operation Conquer the Entire Universe was recently put into action with The Mandalorian, the main attraction of the new Disney+ streaming service. (Lucasfilm)
Disney buys Star Wars (2012): Having swooped in for Marvel, the Magic Kingdom turned its tractor-beam on Lucasfilm. Star Wars was duly sucked into the mothership for a bargain $2.2bn. And then – cue swarming Tie-Fighter noises – came a galaxy of new products. The Force Awakens (2015) was an enjoyable remix of the original Star Wars. But follow-up The Last Jedi crashed and burned having attempted to fix a franchise that wasn’t broken. The next phase of Operation Conquer the Entire Universe was recently put into action with The Mandalorian, the main attraction of the new Disney+ streaming service. (Lucasfilm)
House of Cards debuts (2013): Kevin Spacey snaps a dog’s neck, Robin Wright waxes chilly in glorious trouser-suits. Yes, the first episode of David Fincher’s Netflix thriller had its moments. But House of Cards was far bigger than itself. It was the mega-bucks franchise with which Netflix revealed to the world the sweep of its ambitions. Oceans of content would follow – from retro romp Stranger Things to the (since cancelled) Marvel adaptations, including Dare-Devil and Jessica Jones, and royal rumpus The Crown. The way we watched TV would never be the same again. (Sky)
House of Cards debuts (2013): Kevin Spacey snaps a dog’s neck, Robin Wright waxes chilly in glorious trouser-suits. Yes, the first episode of David Fincher’s Netflix thriller had its moments. But House of Cards was far bigger than itself. It was the mega-bucks franchise with which Netflix revealed to the world the sweep of its ambitions. Oceans of content would follow – from retro romp Stranger Things to the (since cancelled) Marvel adaptations, including Dare-Devil and Jessica Jones, and royal rumpus The Crown. The way we watched TV would never be the same again. (Sky)
The Red Wedding in Game of Thrones (2013): Look out…they’re behind you! Actually no, they’re all around you. And now they are stabbing your pregnant wife in the belly… So long Winterfell hero Robb Stark and hello Game of Thrones, cultural juggernaut. With season three’s Red Wedding – the penultimate episode was actually called “The Rains of Castamere” – Game of Thrones adaptors David Benioff and DB Weiss proved themselves masters of subverting expectations. At the time, they must have felt on top of the world. After all, George RR Martin was close to finishing his second-but-last Song of Ice and Fire novel, The Winds of Winter, leaving Benioff and Weiss more than enough time to bring the show to a satisfactory end. What could possibly go wrong? (Sky)
The Red Wedding in Game of Thrones (2013): Look out…they’re behind you! Actually no, they’re all around you. And now they are stabbing your pregnant wife in the belly… So long Winterfell hero Robb Stark and hello Game of Thrones, cultural juggernaut. With season three’s Red Wedding – the penultimate episode was actually called “The Rains of Castamere” – Game of Thrones adaptors David Benioff and DB Weiss proved themselves masters of subverting expectations. At the time, they must have felt on top of the world. After all, George RR Martin was close to finishing his second-but-last Song of Ice and Fire novel, The Winds of Winter, leaving Benioff and Weiss more than enough time to bring the show to a satisfactory end. What could possibly go wrong? (Sky)
The finale of Breaking Bad (2013): As we try to put the disastrous finale of Game of Thrones behind us, it is comforting to recall those blockbuster shows that concluded on a satisfying note. After five searing seasons, the Ballad of Walter White finished with Bryan Cranston’s chemistry teacher turned meth magnate bleeding out, as his side-kick Jesse drove into the night and Badfinger blared. The perfect end to the great morality play of our age. (Sky)
The finale of Breaking Bad (2013): As we try to put the disastrous finale of Game of Thrones behind us, it is comforting to recall those blockbuster shows that concluded on a satisfying note. After five searing seasons, the Ballad of Walter White finished with Bryan Cranston’s chemistry teacher turned meth magnate bleeding out, as his side-kick Jesse drove into the night and Badfinger blared. The perfect end to the great morality play of our age. (Sky)
Frozen is released (2013): It is a sign how we have come, and how quickly that, a mere six years ago, a sugar-frosted power ballad about learning to love the real you could be considered vaguely revolutionary, even subversive. But “Let It Go”, the song upon which Frozen coasted to global success, was received as something genuinely ground-breaking by minorities everywhere. Elsa embraced the ice-queen within. And outsiders and outcasts the world over stood up and sang along. It was a big gloopy gummy bear of a tune. Yet it encouraged the downtrodden to find their voice. (Sky)
Frozen is released (2013): It is a sign how we have come, and how quickly that, a mere six years ago, a sugar-frosted power ballad about learning to love the real you could be considered vaguely revolutionary, even subversive. But “Let It Go”, the song upon which Frozen coasted to global success, was received as something genuinely ground-breaking by minorities everywhere. Elsa embraced the ice-queen within. And outsiders and outcasts the world over stood up and sang along. It was a big gloopy gummy bear of a tune. Yet it encouraged the downtrodden to find their voice. (Sky)

But negatively framed implementation intentions (“when I feel like eating chocolate, I will not eat chocolate”) can be counterproductive since people have to suppress a thought (“don’t eat chocolate”). Ironically, trying to suppress a thought actually makes us more likely to think about it thereby increasing the risk of habits such as binge eating, smoking and drinking.

Distraction is another approach that can disrupt habits. Also effective is focusing on the positive aspects of the new habit and the negative aspects of the problem habit.

4. Imagine your future self

To make better decisions we need to overcome our tendency to prefer rewards now rather than later – psychologists call this our “present bias”. One way to fight this bias is to futureproof our decisions. Our future self tends to be virtuous and adopts long-term goals. In contrast, our present self often pursues short-term, situational goals. There are ways we can workaround this, though.

For example, setting up a direct debit into a savings account is effective because it’s a one-off decision. In contrast, eating decisions are problematic because of their high frequency. Often our food choices are compromised by circumstance or situational stresses. Planning ahead is therefore important because we regress to our old habits when put under pressure.

5. Set goals and deadlines

Setting self-imposed deadlines or goals helps us change our behaviour and form new habits. For example, say you are going to save a certain amount of money every month. Deadlines work particularly well when tied to self-imposed rewards and penalties for good behaviour.

Another way to increase motivation is to harness the power of peer pressure. Websites such as stickK allow you to broadcast your commitments online so that friends can follow your progress via the website or on social media (for example, “I will lose a stone in weight by May”). These are highly visible commitments and tie our colours to the mast. A financial forfeit for failure (preferably payable to a cause you oppose) can add extra motivation.

Brian Harman is a lecturer in marketing at De Montfort University and Janine Bosak is an associate professor in organisational psychology at Dublin City University. This article first appeared on The Conversation