Are New Year’s resolutions a waste of time?

This article is written by student Jake Campling, Professor Jackie Andrade and Professor Jon May (School of Psychology, University of Plymouth) and Professor David Kavanagh (Centre for Children’s Health Research, Queensland University of Technology)

The first of January is a fresh start for many in the Western world. Like the two-headed Roman god Janus, from which January gets its name, we use the start of each New Year to look back over the past year and forward into the next.

Many use the introspection, self-examination and orientation to the future to make resolutions and it is a time when people regularly join gyms and Google the term ‘diet’.

These resolutions are a recent tradition largely restricted to English-speaking countries, but fresh starts are universal and almost every culture has a date that represents an opportunity to renew control of our personal behaviour.

Many fresh starts are associated with abstinence from vices, such as quitting smoking, drinking or fatty food.

But while whole communities successfully fast for religious festivals such as Ramadan, very few people achieve their New Year’s resolutions with studies showing that only 9.2 per cent of people felt they succeeded in achieving their goal in 2017.

In fact, a third of resolutions had already failed by the middle of January. So, what makes maintaining a new year’s resolution so hard?

Part of the problem is that people are generally bad at ignoring their current state when making decisions about how they will feel in the future.

Another part of the problem is that temptations are always available, which provides added complications since we are biologically programmed to live for the present.

When you make a New Year’s resolution, you will most likely be relaxed, replete with festive food and in a holiday mood, perhaps surrounded by family and friends.

Stresses from work are likely not at the top of your mind and few of the day-to-day pressures that make these commitments difficult are present.

People also commonly underestimate the strength of the future cravings and desires that could derail their resolution, especially if they’re not presently experiencing a craving or desire or have recently over-indulged.

In essence, the so-called ‘empathy gap’ is working against you, meaning that how you feel now is stopping you empathising with your future self. So how do we overcome these obstacles and can we learn anything from, for example, Ramadan about keeping resolutions?

Our top tips for achieving your goals in the coming year are:

  • Make that New Year’s Resolution: It is not a waste of time and you are ten times more likely to achieve your goal if you make a resolution than if you do not;
  • Make it about what you want to achieve today, and for the rest of this month;
  • Garner social support and strengthen your commitment by telling everyone what you plan to do. Splash it across social media;
  • Then, sit down and spend a few minutes imagining, as vividly as you can, what you will do today to get started on your plan, what you will do next, and how good it will feel to succeed each day.

In Ramadan, everyone shares some behaviour goals and, in countries with a large Muslim population, it is uncommon to come across tempting foods or people eating during the day.

Similar levels of social support have been used by public health campaigns such as Dry January and Stoptober, which create a large population with the same goal, and give people the sense that they are committed to something wider than just a personal aspiration.

Dry January has substantial average effects, and even those who fail to have a dry month are still likely to see benefits at six months, which is longer than most New Year’s resolutions last.

But unlike resolutions, examples such as Ramadan and Dry January focus on changes over a limited period, rather than over a whole year or even forever.

While the attempt is still subject to challenges, goals and rewards that are only a month away undergo far less discounting than goals we must wait a year to achieve.

Even more immediate goals and benefits may further increase your ability to stay on track.

A goal to stay on track for today, and a focus on the positive outcomes of achieving that goal, are more concrete and immediately motivating than a sole focus on long-term goals and benefits.

It can also help you get back on track if a lapse does occur, with each moment presenting a new opportunity to get back in control.

You can also use cognitive psychology to deal with temptations. People sometimes assume that their cravings are physiological and will keep getting stronger until they are satisfied.

In 2005, we published a theory of desire that suggested cravings for foods and drugs are sustained by vivid imagery of what it would look, smell, taste and feel like to consume the substance.

Substantial research has supported this idea but a new counselling technique uses it to help people stay focused on their future goals by taking what we know about the role of mental imagery in substance cravings, and using it to create strong desires for healthy goals or rewards.

Opportunities in psychology

We offer undergraduate and postgraduate courses as well as short courses for professionals.

Our courses are recognised by the British Psychological Society.

Courses for you in the School of Psychology

Psychology research

Psychology research

Plymouth is in the top 20 of all UK universities in psychology, neuroscience and psychiatry with 83 per cent of our research output rated world-leading or internationally excellent by REF2014

Research seminars, online studies, current grants and recent publications.

Discover the research in progress in the school