‘Why I believe you CAN keep your resolutions’

Good intentions: Common resolutions include learning a new skill, healthy eating, and exercise.
by Anjana Ahuja

An award-winning science writer for the Financial Times, and previously for The Times. Anjana Ahuja is the co-author of the book Selected, on why certain people are leaders and others are not.

Every year, it is the same story: we make a list of New Year’s resolutions, only to give up on them after a few weeks. But Anjana Ahuja says it does not have to be that way. And here is why…

Tradition dictates that each new year is an opportunity for self-improvement.

New year’s resolutions are not to be undertaken lightly. That is because they are about behaviour change, which is a difficult feat to pull off at any time of the year.

It is hard to pluck out a reliable figure about the proportion of people who stick to their good intentions, but one survey found that 56% do not.

“Willpower is often likened to a muscle — the debate is whether it is strengthened, or fatigued, by regular use.”

This should not be surprising. We have all had ample opportunity over the past 12 months to reflect on our shortcomings, with few of us managing to achieve desirable change. Why this inertia should suddenly dissolve in January has always puzzled me.

It is not that my life does not require betterment — but, to a certain degree, I lack willpower. It is this precious commodity that is seen as key to whether the resolutions made on January 1st are adhered to.

Permanently overcoming my sweet tooth would be a resolution doomed to failure. Instead, I try to occasionally eschew a biscuit with my morning coffee. From such modest ambitions are minor triumphs fashioned.

Psychologists have long thought willpower was a finite resource. Newer studies, however, are less confident about this assertion, implying that we may possess the capacity to be strong-willed in all aspects of life.

Willpower is also often likened to a muscle — the debate is really whether the muscle is strengthened, or fatigued, by regular use.

Even if the science of willpower seems opaque, psychology can still offer insights into how to help those January resolutions stick.

John Norcross, professor of psychology at Scranton University, contends that there are five stages to behaviour change: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.

I asked Professor Norcross for his three top tips to readers embarking on resolutions. His first recommendation is to track progress, on the basis that behaviours that are measured are more likely to improve.

Second, he says, adapt your environment. Cues are all around us, prompting us subconsciously to behave in certain ways. As Prof Norcross puts it: “Trigger healthy behaviours by hanging with prudent people, places and things.” For me, it means not having biscuits in the house.

His final tip? Expect to mess up. It may even help: “One of our research studies showed that 71% of successful resolvers said their first slip had actually strengthened their efforts — they learnt from the mistake and recommitted.”

Psychologists have not completely cornered the market: economists can offer wisdom on behavioural change too. One of my favourite strategies is embodied by the website www.stickk.com. It relies on two brutal behavioural truths: people do not like losing money, and they are likely to behave better when others are looking.

A person signing up to a “commitment contract” must agree to forfeit a financial penalty if they falter. Sending forfeited cash to an “undeserving” recipient — for example, an overweight Trump supporter pledging money to the Clinton Foundation if the pounds do not budge — is particularly effective. The website claims to triple the chances of people fulfilling their promises.

If I really wanted to conquer the biscuit blight, I would probably try something along those lines: maybe a fiver for every Hob Nob, with the proceeds going to the Kardashians. But I have Christmas to get through first.

This is an edited piece reprinted with kind permission from the Financial Times. The original can be found under Become An Expert.

You Decide

  1. Do you think making New Year’s resolutions is a good idea?

Activities

  1. Write down a New Year’s resolution that you hope to keep in January. Then, using Professor Norcross’s three tips, write down three things which you will do to help you stick to it.

Subjects

Word Watch

One survey
A study by Bupa with 2,000 participants, published in November 2015. The most common reasons for not keeping to your resolutions were a lack of commitment and loss of motivation.
Finite
Traditional experiments into self-discipline involve two successive challenges, both of which require willpower (such as resisting delicious foods). Very generally, people seem to struggle more on the second task.
Less confident
In 2015, Dr Evan Carter, of the University of Miami, analysed the results of many different willpower experiments. He disregarded any that did not use well-established willpower tasks and included unpublished studies, which were more likely to have “boring” results. He found little evidence that willpower is a limited resource, and implied that it may get better with practice.
Five stages
John Norcross explained his theory in the book Changeology (Simon & Schuster 2012). Find out more about his five steps under Become An Expert.