We’re more than two weeks into 2020. Are you still keeping to your health-related New Year’s resolutions?
According to one old, small, but oft-cited study, almost a quarter of us abandon our resolutions after one week and about a half after one month. After six months, two-thirds of us are no longer sticking to our goals.
And this Sunday — Jan. 19 — may be a particularly perilous day for resolution-makers. Based on the past activity patterns of people using its fitness apps, the social fitness network Strava predicts that Sunday will be “Quitter’s Day,” the day when most Americans will forsake their fitness goals for 2020.
So, what can we do to stay on track with our New Year’s resolutions? As journalist Emily Reynolds points out in a recent article for BPS Research Digest (a website published by the British Psychological Society), “there sometimes seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why some habits stick and others fall by the wayside almost immediately.”
“But there are a few things you can do to make your new routines work, based on research into motivation, temptation and achievement,” she adds.
Here are some of her tips, along with an explanation of the scientific evidence that supports them:
Plan for moments of temptation, don’t just respond to them
If you’ve ever tried to give something up, even for a short period of time, you’ll know just how all-consuming temptation can be. Skipping a session at the gym, letting your screen time creep back up, or flaking on plans when you promised you wouldn’t: it can sometimes feel almost impossible not to cave.
And whilst we often put our ability to ignore these temptations down to our capacity to exercise self-control in the moment, actively planning for temptation may be better than just responding to it, as one 2019 study argued. Another, also published in 2019, found that more “planful” people were more likely to keep up their gym habit.
Goal progress was far better supported by proactive rather than reactive strategies of self-control, the first study found — so planning how you’re going to deal with urges before they arise may be a better way of keeping new habits up than hoping for the best when temptation strikes.
Let yourself lapse
It feels awful when you break a new habit — and can lead to giving up entirely. But planning lapses may actually help you achieve goals in the long term.
Following a strict regime, one paper argues, can make people feel like a total failure when they’re unable to keep it up 24/7. This, in turn, affects motivation, and in the end you’re less likely to sustain your new habit at all.
But planning lapses can actually help — you’re less likely to lose motivation, more likely to find new routines fun rather than a chore, and more likely to keep up levels of self-control the rest of the time. It might feel counter-intuitive, but letting yourself go every once in a while could be the best way to maintain new habits.
Find a sense of purpose
Having a sense of purpose can be of huge psychological benefit: you’re likely to have greater emotional well-being and to feel generally better about life, for instance.
And some research suggests it may make you better off financially, too. One 2016 study followed more than 7000 participants over nine years, finding that those with a “greater sense of purpose” had also ended up richer than those with little or none.
Of course there are structural issues at play — those on low salaries or living with debt are extremely unlikely to have got there merely because they didn’t have a sense of purpose, nor will they be able to suddenly become millionaires if one develops.
But still, the findings suggest that having a greater sense of purpose in life could be a useful strategy for working towards long-term goals.
FMI: You’ll find all 10 of Reynolds’ tips on the BPS Research Digest website.