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Forming New Habits - Why New Year's Resolutions Do Not Work

9th April 2018

As the next holiday in our calendar – Easter – comes and goes, you may have noticed that you have lost touch with any new year’s resolutions you made at the start of the year. It may have only been a few months ago where you were so keen and excited about the prospect of tackling new challenges or overall becoming a ‘better, healthier’ you. But nothing has changed. Why does this happen? Why do new year’s resolutions seem to fail and fade into the background year on end?

What are new year’s resolutions and why do we make them?

New Year’s resolutions are a tradition which are evident in the Western world, but also found in Eastern cultures. In a nutshell they are a promise a person makes for the new year, usually in the form of a goal. Typically, these goals are to change an undesired characteristic or behaviour or to improve one’s life in some way.

We live in a society where there is constant pressure to be the ‘better’ version of ourselves. The fast-paced developed world of today produces a sense of pressure to be constantly improving ourselves – in both our personal and work lives. Additionally, with the increase in social media use we are faced with ‘perfect’ versions of men and women on a daily basis. As such, when the new year comes around, many people feel as if this is the right opportunity to put to the test whether they can achieve goals of improving an aspect of their life.

Another common reason we tend to make these resolutions is that often by the end of the year we are so exhausted and feel as if life has flown by us so quickly, so we use the symbolism of a new year to start afresh and anew. But is it really that simple? Can we just erase what has just been and effectively start from scratch when it is a new year?

Forming new habits is difficult

New year’s resolutions are great in theory, but there is a caveat. Forming new habits is hard. It takes time, intentional effort and patience. And this is probably why a lot of people ‘fail’ to keep up with their resolutions.

The reality of habits is as follows: we are creatures of habits; old habits can be hard to break; and new habits take time and patience to create. It is believed that habit formation is derived from a ‘Habit Loop’, which entails 3 steps: cue, routine and reward. In other words, it is difficult to change our behaviour or to form habits unless we recognise what initiates the behaviour (reminder), that we continually practice it (routine) and receive a benefit from performing it (reward).

Behavioural patterns we repeatedly perform become automated responses and are etched into our neural pathways. Although this explains why it can be difficult to change an existing behaviour, fortunately it suggests that with time and through repetition we can form and maintain new habits. But even still, are resolutions worthwhile?

What can we do instead?

Maybe in this day in age we are so obsessed with trying to do everything. Many of us produce an endless list of resolutions which have somehow piled up over the years (and yet have never been tackled). Instead, it may be simpler, more beneficial and easy to achieve if we break them down. A few tips – not necessarily to all be used in conjunction – that you can take on board for the next year (or even now!) are summarised below.

  • Focus on changing one habit that creates the most change: Making one small change rather than attempting to accomplish 10+ things in the new year is a lot more realistic, but it is also more likely to have a positive effect on your life. It will help alleviate any resistance or hesitation you may have with change.
  • Break the goal down into smaller steps: In a similar vein, one big change that you may be considering may be overwhelming in its entirety and therefore may result in it not being approached, let alone accomplished. If you want to start running and lose that extra bit of weight, you can’t expect to run a marathon overnight. Set yourself weekly targets that all add up to the final goal. Not only will you receive continual gratification for each smaller task, but it will make you perceive the end goal as more achievable as you tick off the preceding steps.
  • Set realistic goals: Consider what is feasible – practically, physically and psychologically. We are not super human. If you don’t deconstruct the goal and reflect on whether it is within your reach, there will more likely than not be extreme resistance in trying to achieve it or you will face inevitable consequences in the pursuit.
  • Reflect on what you are motivated to accomplish: To be able to put in the time and effort, it goes without saying that there needs to be some motivation and level of compliance.

It is easy to get caught up in the hype and excitement that the new year brings. But some things are just unrealistic. It is exciting and can be stimulating to challenge ourselves and to target that ‘thing’ that we want to improve. But we also need to be kind to ourselves and know what is within our limits in order to achieve desired changes in our lives.

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