For many of us, the end of one year and the start of another presents an opportunity for soul searching and re-evaluation of our lives. The tradition of making resolutions dates back at least as far back as ancient Babylon, where people committed to righting wrongs, dropping bad habits and paying debts as the new year rolled in. In fact, January itself is named after Janus, a two-faced figure from Roman mythology, commonly associated with new beginnings and periods of change.
Unfortunately, most of us fail to stick to our promises. While the vast majority of figures that are bandied around are purely anecdotal, some more carefully conducted studies show just how poor our resolution-keeping abilities are. For example, one, published in the Journal of Substance Abuse, found that only 19 per cent of its 200 participants had managed to maintain their pledges for two years.
The most frequently made resolutions centre on health and finances. According to a YouGov poll, 2018's most common aspirations were to eat healthier, to get more exercise and to save more money. Considering that most of these commitments will have not been honoured, plenty of people will be making another attempt in 2019. So, what can we possibly do to increase our chances of success?
Keeping resolutions can take huge amounts of willpower and fortitude. Smoking, for instance, is a powerful physical and mental addiction, making it notoriously tough to quit. Therefore, in periods of weakness, it can be helpful to keep in mind exactly why we are making changes in the first place. As the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote: "He who has a why… can bear almost any how."
Another key factor in keeping resolutions is how we frame our goals. Cognitive behavioural psychotherapists get their clients to use the SMART acronym, which stipulates that desired outcomes should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timed. This framework can also be applied to resolutions. For example, the idea of "getting fit" could be better framed as "visit the gym for a 20-minute workout at least twice per week for the next three months". Setting achievable targets is a good move, as it protects us from the resolve-sapping experience of failure – and then there's the added bonus that if we end up exceeding our minimum requirements, we feel great.
Another dilemma is whether to let other people know about our resolutions. Some believe that a strong and public statement of intent will help them stick to their plans. John Norcross, a psychology professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, agrees. In his book, Changology, he reviews research demonstrating that a public commitment is more effective than a private declaration of our goals. Once we tell everyone, we deepen our commitment and increase the cost of failure, adding the threat of embarrassment to the motivational mix.
Another way to maintain resolutions is to focus on their short-term pleasures as well as their long-term benefits. This idea comes from a study published in 2016 in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Research found that participants who placed increased attention on the immediate rewards of their activities demonstrated greater persistence than those who focused on their wider aims. For example, the long-term goal of a gym-goer may be health, but there are also many immediate rewards to be enjoyed – the music, the social atmosphere, the feeling of being energised after a workout and proud of oneself for sticking your given exercise regimen.
Then there’s the matter of what to do if we hit a bump in the road. If this happens, it is worth remembering exactly how many people will be experiencing the same sense of shame and disappointment. The trick is to let those feelings pass, dust yourself down and try again. After all, it is far more useful to celebrate a renewed attempt at personal improvement than to beat yourself up for a past failure and give up altogether.
Dr Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University