The Psychology Behind New Year’s Resolutions and How to Keep Them

If you’re ready to turn a new leaf after 2020, you’re not alone. Although this past year has been challenging, we mustn’t forget all we gained from it. We can start by paying homage to the resilience it taught us and the strength it brought out in so many. So as we step into the new year, don’t forget to reflect and keep the gains going in 2021. One way to do this? Try setting a resolution.

With the excesses of the holidays behind us, millions of people are setting out on New Year’s resolutions with the pledge to better themselves and their lifestyle in some way. Unfortunately, history has shown that most won’t be seeing theirs through to the end. The good news? There are plenty of strategies you can implement that’ll help you persevere to next December, which is important, because resolutions and goals go hand in hand, and both provide us with a vision and a direction to who we want to be.

So whether you’re looking to create a healthier lifestyle, take up a new hobby, spend more time with family, or lower your carbon footprint, read on to explore the psychology behind New Year’s resolutions and tips from experts to help keep yours going all year long. 

Why do we make New Year’s resolutions?

Resolutions aren’t just a modern day invention, they date back far in history. “In ancient times, Romans made resolutions of good conduct to the god Janus, for whom the month of January is named,” says John C. Norcross, PhD, professor and Chair of Psychology at the University of Scranton. “The Babylonians began each year by pledging to pay debts and return borrowed items. Medieval knights, during their final Christmas feast, reaffirmed their commitment to chivalry.”

It’s human nature to want to start over on a clean slate, and what better time to kick off than at the beginning of something new? Enter, New Year’s Day—a day which beautifully symbolizes a new chapter in life allowing resolution goers to commit or recommit to goals.

More importantly, resolutions aren’t just about our future, but our past as well. When we become mindful of past habits, such as not getting enough exercise, we can then make the decision to resolve in the future—getting more exercise. 

“There are perceived standards that we have been exposed to since birth that have been shaped by parents and friends, then social media influencers, and advertisers,” says Donald Stenhoff, PhD, clinical assistant professor in psychology at Arizona State University. “Some standards are beneficial, such as avoiding excessive amounts of food, and some are unhealthy (physically and psychologically). Resolutions are made when there is a gap between the what is (past to present) and what should be (future).”

New Year’s Day offers the opportunity to hit the “reset button” and set personal standards for the year ahead. “Making a New Year’s resolution is a valuable opportunity for annual reflection and life enhancement,” says Dr. Norcross. “Like Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and the season of Lent, these moments remind us to recommit to one’s best self and reflect on a better future.”

Why do most New Year’s resolutions fail?

Most resolutions are about changing habits or in other words, ingrained patterns of behavior. If you’ve ever attempted to create or quit a habit then you know just how tempting it can be to slip up or quit altogether when having a bad day. 

“Most people don’t prepare for riding out the discomfort of changing a habit,” says Dr. Wallin. “Many also don’t realize that the discomfort fades. But when hunger pangs or cigarette cravings are intense, we tend to assume that it will feel that way forever—when actually, it won’t.”

Another important factor is that we often don’t change the environment in which we would like to see our behavior change. “The decision to make a New Year’s resolution is often related to the values of our surroundings—for example, people and media,” says Stenhoff. “We need to be careful to observe that others’ values might not match our values.” For example, you should reconsider following media outlets that are harsh on setbacks if you’d like to remain positive.

How to keep up with your New Year’s resolutions

The thought of keeping up with a New Year’s resolution all year can feel daunting, but luckily, there are plenty of strategies to help you persevere. You’d be surprised how far grit, organization, and support will get you! Below are tips to make your 2021’s resolutions stick.

First, identify your values and be sure that they’re true to you. “Let’s say your goal is to lose 20 pounds,” starts Dr. Wallin. “If your reason is to look good at your high school reunion next spring for other people, that’s external motivation. You anticipate other people regarding you in a positive way. On the other hand, if your reason to lose 20 pounds is to feel more vibrant or to reduce your health risks, that is an internally motivated goal.” If your goal is internal then it’s true to you and you’re more likely to stick with it.

Second, make a game plan and identify value-guided goals. Stenhoff suggests making immediate goals (something attainable in the next day), short-term goals (something attainable in a few days or weeks), medium-term goals (attainable over a few weeks and months), and long-term goals (attainable over a few months to a year). Breaking down big goals into smaller pieces is beneficial because you’ll see success sooner and not feel overwhelmed.

Third, set yourself up for success by creating an environment to support your resolution. “For example, we need to find ways to remind ourselves of what our current goals are,” explains Stenhoff. One way to do this is by establishing routines, writing them down, and putting them somewhere you’ll see every day, which could give you a sense of obligation to carry on.

Fourth, track your progress. Stenhoff suggests that tracking your progress should be based on something you can observe like the number of times you do something or how long you do something. This way you feel your accomplishments often and have the motivation to continue. Also, it’s vital to always celebrate and reward yourself when reaching a goal!

Lastly, be gracious with yourself throughout your journey. Language and the way you talk to yourself is powerful. There will be days where you perform better than others and it’s okay to have days where you don’t perform well at all—you’re human. However, “if we continue to fall short of our goals, we may need to think about whether the value we chose is actually a value of ours, if the goal we chose is appropriate, if we need to change things in our environment, or if the rewards we give ourselves are actually rewarding,” says Stenhoff.

Source link: by Kelsey Maloney at