Science shows resolutions NOT a waste of time

Specific, achievable goals: Research proves that these are far more likely to make a real difference. © Alamy

Are New Year resolutions worth it? Around one-quarter of people give up their resolutions after just one week, while fewer than one in 10 will maintain their goal to the end of the year.

Since Julius Caesar ruled that New Year began on 1 January in 46BC, and urged subjects to commit to personal improvement, resolutions have been synonymous with the turning of the year.

After the overindulgence of Christmas, cutting down on food and drink, or vowing to exercise more, may seem like a welcome antidote to the excesses of the party season.

The problem, say behavioural scientists, is that people often set too large and too vague targets, such as “losing weight” or “exercising more”, and tend to focus on what they are changing rather than why.

Instead, research has shown that setting small, achievable goals is the best approach — while looking forward to a specific end-point, such as being able to compete in a 5k race, or fit back into a much-loved dress for a party, can provide ongoing motivation.

Dr Claire Garnett, an expert in behaviour change interventions at the Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group at University College London, said, “One of the hardest things about making a change can be sticking with it. Making a resolution that is too challenging and unrealistic.

“Set yourself a realistic resolution and track your behaviour to see your progress. It’s also important to make specific plans for how to manage tricky situations and stay on track. And get support.”

So, are New Year resolutions worth it?

Resolved?

Those making resolutions see the first month of the year as a chance for renewal. A new year allows us to take stock of our lives and to work out how we might improve ourselves, live longer and be happier. The shared social experience of New Year’s resolutions and the pressure they create make January the ideal time to change ourselves for the better.

Others are convinced that sweeping, long-term efforts at reinvention are far too extreme and stressful, and always doomed to fail. Organisations like Alcoholics Anonymous, with many years’ experience of helping people to turn their lives around, believe in one day at a time. Focus on today, they say, and tomorrow will look after itself. And even if you fail today, you have not “broken your resolution” for ever. You only made it for one day. It can easily be renewed the following day.

You Decide

  1. Are New Year resolutions worth making?
  2. Is January the ideal time to improve our lives?

Activities

  1. Make a list of five things you would like to change about yourself this year. Now in percentages, give your own realistic evaluation of each one — where 100% means you will definitely succeed, and 0% means you will definitely fail.
  2. Team up in pairs. Prepare a five-minute presentation to the class, suggesting a shared resolution for all. Take a final vote to pick the winner.

Some People Say...

“Great dangers give birth to great resolutions.”

Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935), French chef.

What do you think?

Q & A

What resolutions could I make?
You might make a resolution to improve your health, like some of those outlined in this article. But a resolution does not necessarily have to be giving something up or doing something you don’t really want to do. You might set yourself goals for the year — and these could be, for example, academic, sporting or musical. Alternatively, you might try something new to broaden your horizons.
How can I make sure to keep them?
Everyone works differently, but psychologist Kevin Kruze recommends a range of steps to help. Make sure you know what you’re trying to do, and plan how to stay on track. Your goals need to be realistic and you need to be patient. Finally, enlist the support of others — for example, your friends and family.

Word Watch

Synonymous
The same as.
Overindulgence
Eating and drinking too much.
Antidote
Cure.
Behavioural scientists
Scientists who study human behaviour.
Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group
A team of scientists at the University of Bristol who conduct research into the psychological and biological factors underlying health behaviours.
Alcoholics Anonymous
An international mutual aid fellowship with the stated purpose of enabling its members to “stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety”.

Subjects

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