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New Year 2015: The psychology of New Year's resolutions

by Sarah Graham
Monday 05 January 2015
281 1256

For many of us, today marks the first day back to work and school after the festive break, and you've undoubtedly already given some thought to whether or not you're making a New Year's resolution for 2015. Perhaps you've been inspired by our suggestions of 10 New Year's resolutions to boost your mental wellbeing, or you're determined to tackle the psychological reasons behind your overeating and shift that extra weight. 

Whatever your resolution, we all know they can be incredibly difficult to stick to. If yours hasn't already fallen by the wayside, here's some advice from six RSCPP therapists to help you get the best out of your new start. We asked them to explain the psychology of making New Year's resolutions: Are they helpful or counterproductive? Can they actually work - and if so, how?


New Year, New You?

The reason for making resolutions now, rather than at any other time of year, are obvious - the start of a New Year offers a symbolic fresh start and the promise of a better year than the last one. As Registered Counsellor Brenda Silverman  says, "One of the most hopeful things about New Year's resolutions is the chance to do something different, and mentally or physically 'start over'."

If you've been meaning to make a change in your life but never quite got round to it in 2014, "the chance or excuse to do this at a given time is that extra push some people need," she explains. "Feeling that a New Year equals a new start is something that can give you the momentum you need to do something you have wanted to do anyway, but have put off trying to do at other times of the year."

One of the most hopeful things about New Year's resolutions is the chance to mentally or physically 'start over'.

Registered Psychotherapist Sue Crofton, on the other hand, is less keen on the idea. "Let me start by declaring my dislike of New Year," she says. "It smacks to me of desperation - 'This year everything's going to be different, better, etc.' It seems obvious to set goals at this time of year; it's an artificial construct, an easy way to mark a beginning. However, by the end of January, most of us have broken those resolutions." In fact, Accredited Counsellor Roslyn Byfield actually suggests that: "Counter-intuitive as it may sound, it can be more helpful to make resolutions throughout the year, rather than as a reaction to the false deadline of midnight on 31 December."

However, like Brenda, Registered Counsellor Caroline Brown believes that, although many of us do make changes throughout the year, "the reason making a choice to change, stop or start something at the beginning of a New Year is appealing is because the timing acts as a very clear starting point, marking the change between the old and the new." 

The timing acts as a clear starting point, marking the change between the old and the new.


Sticking at it beyond February

Despite having this clear starting point, the fact remains that resolutions are often difficult to stick to and many people give up after an initial burst of good intentions. "Trying to keep it going into February is hard," Brenda says. "The second month of the year is generally the time when many people give up; after the initial push and excitement of keeping that resolution going, it tends to wane and waver."

It's a familiar story for many regular gym-goers, as Sue says: "I notice it at my gym, which is full to bursting with new members through January. Then generally people stop coming, and by February it's back to the regulars!"

Trying to keep it going into February is hard - the second month of the year is when many people give up.

However, they are ways to avoid setting yourself up for failure, and the key is to not lose hope. Brenda explains: "Doing something different is always hard, and I would always recommend the same pattern for change in any difficult circumstance - take it day by day."

She adds: "Every day you can manage to do something that you have wanted, tried and failed to do before, is another day of achievement. If you have a blip, treat it as exactly what it is - a blip. It is not the end of the road for the resolution."


Choosing resolutions that work for you

The best way to succeed is to think carefully about your resolutions at the very start of the New Year, and choose goals that are achievable. As Accredited Counsellor Roslyn Byfield says, "While New Year's Resolutions can and do work for some people and in some situations, the fact that the top three (weight loss, exercise and quitting smoking) appear year after year suggests that there's quite a high failure rate. You may be drawn into making them because you've done so in the past or feel swept along by a tide of optimism on New Year's Eve."

Instead, she explains, "It's much better to spend some time at the end of the year thinking through how the previous year has gone and how you want to spend the forthcoming one, rather than coming up with the same goals on automatic pilot. The latter kind are built on weaker foundations than if they're thought through in advance."

Look at achievable goals and small steps, and look for who can help you to succeed.

After considering what you really want to achieve this year, Accredited Counsellor Michelle Hughes says: "always look at achievable goals and small steps, and look for who can help and support you to succeed. Think beforehand about how you may sabotage your resolution, and have a self-rescue plan in place."

Caroline adds: "Consider if this is really something you want for yourself, rather than a goal that has been set for you by someone else, and if it is really do-able for you at the moment. Ask yourself if it is measurable, achievable, reasonable; if, having asked this, you think it is unlikely to be successful, you could look at taking it in smaller stages."


Taking smaller steps

If you don't currently do any regular exercise, setting yourself the challenge of running a marathon in 2015 may well be setting yourself up for failure. However, if your ultimate goal is to take up running and get fit, it may be more achievable to begin by training for a shorter, more manageable race, such as a 5K or 10K, rather than running headlong into marathon training and ending up exhausted, frustrated or injured.

Your resolution is less likely to work if it's too challenging, leading to resentment and self-sabotage.

Indeed, Roslyn explains that: "Making and sticking to resolutions can be a finely balanced challenge. The task will inevitably involve sustained effort and commitment, but it's less likely to work if it's too challenging, leading to resentment and self-sabotage."

She adds: "Two enemies of successful resolutions are unrealistic expectations - such as trying to keep up several challenging goals at once, or wanting instant results when progress in anything worthwhile is usually gradual - and giving up too easily, for example if you don't manage to stick to the goal 100%."


Not giving up

Taking an 'all or nothing' approach to your resolutions makes it much easier to let yourself off the hook and give up at the slightest hurdle. Having one slice of cake or one cigarette need not be a signal of failure. As Brenda says, treat blips as momentary lapses rather than outright failures. "It's far better to accept that it's harder to do something than you imagined," she says.

"To give up, even after a few weeks, is a waste of all the effort you've put into it up until that point. Give yourself another chance - it's too long to wait until next January to try again."

Take it day by day, set realistic and specific goals, and see change as a lifestyle choice rather than an endpoint.

Rather than beating yourself up, accept that there will be challenges and take your resolution one day at a time. "Take it day by day, set realistic and specific goals, and see change as a lifestyle choice rather than an endpoint," Sue advises. "Don't diet to lose weight, change how, when and what you eat. Or find an exercise that you really like and maybe an exercise buddy to keep up your motivation."

It may also be helpful to get into the habit of imagining the changes taking place within you, says Registered Psychotherapist Jaimie Cahlil. "This way you'll be engaging deeply in your resolution, and sending your deeper mind powerful messages that say 'I am', rather than 'I'm trying to', which is a get-out."

Say 'I am', rather than 'I'm trying to', which is a get-out.


How therapy could help

Since most New Year's resolutions are inspired by a desire to improve some aspect of your self-care, therapy may also be a useful place to think about setting and achieving your goals. As Jaimie says, "A New Year's resolution creates a psychological fresh start, and for many people this really challenges your sense of identify and your relationship with yourself."

He adds: "What I find helps support and strengthen any new - or renewed - resolution is to work to develop a healthier relationship with yourself, and this is where working with a therapist can make a real difference."

Support and strengthen your resolution by working with a therapist to develop a healthier relationship with yourself.

Roslyn also believes therapy can be useful for people who consistently set and fail to achieve the same resolutions, year after year. "While it's reasonable for everyone to want to improve their quality of life, and resolutions can make a good contribution here, there can also be an element of fantasy - of wanting to believe that your life will be so much better, and your problems solved, if only you could lose weight, get a new job, give up smoking, etc.," she says.

"If there's been repetition of goals over several years, it may be worthwhile exploring in therapy why you've not managed to achieve certain goals before, as there could be underlying factors standing in the way."

Finding support

If you are concerned about the issues raised in this article then you may like to read about finding the right therapist for you. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

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Updated 05 January 2015