January is often a time for personal reflection as a New Year can gently nudge people in the direction of change. Survey results compiled by the Toronto Star a few years back found that 68 percent of Canadians still make New Year’s resolutions. The top three resolutions were the ubiquitous ‘lose weight’, followed closely by ‘quit smoking’ and ‘stick to a budget’. Even though less than 20 percent of people will make it a full year committed to that resolution, many of us continue to make them anyway. So why do we put ourselves on the resolution roller coaster year after year? And how do we make them stick?
Expressions like ‘out with the old, in with the new’ are popular at this time of year for good reason. As it turns out, a new year is naturally suited to a fresh start. A study published in the Management Science Journal by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found events that mark the passage of time, like a new year, a birthday, or the start of a new month/week, can provoke self-reflection, which can ultimately motivate change. The study analyzed Google searches for the word ‘diet’ and found they inevitably peaked at the start of a new week and jumped up dramatically, 82.1 percent, on New Year’s Day.
Many of us have probably had that same moment of self-reflection at the start of a new year or a milestone birthday. Perhaps you started a bucket list when you turned 50, joined a gym at the start of a new year or made a promise to volunteer more. If so, that lure of setting a new goal may have been irresistible. An article published in Psychology Today examined how our goal-orientated brains love organizing, sorting and prioritizing tasks – and this may hold the key to understanding our desire to make New Year’s Resolutions.
The brain’s executive function is what enables us to plan and achieve our goals. Executive function is a mental process that helps focus our attention and balance multiple, competing tasks. According to Psychology Today, “this brain function is what sets us apart from all other living things. Most other creatures react based on instinct; we take action based on planning.”
And after all, a resolution is just a goal that is set in motion as we ring in the New Year. Often, the incentive to set that goal comes from a need to find meaning or purpose in life. For example, a commitment to volunteer more may reflect a desire to help others. Working hard to achieve that goal also makes us feel good, activating the reward pathways in the brain.
So now that you know why you made that resolution, here are a few strategies that may help it stick:
- After you set the goal, make a detailed plan. In the Ringing in the New Year study on resolutions published in the ScienceDirect Journal, researchers found that successful resolvers employed more behavioral strategies to reach their goals. Instead of just saying ‘I want to exercise more’, make a detailed implementation plan. For example, if you plan to exercise early in the morning, set a weekly schedule then prepare the night before; get out your water bottle, lay out your exercise clothes and make a music playlist. You’re less likely to roll over and go back to be when you’ve set all those things in motion.
- Be realistic and cut yourself some slack. If you’re trying to change a bad habit you’ve had for years, be patient! The Ringing in the New Year study also found that successful resolvers were less likely to self-blame and get down on themselves when they lapsed into old patterns.
- Start small. If you want to change your eating habits, substitute an unhealthy snack like potato chips for carrots or whole wheat crackers and build up from there. If you start an extremely restrictive diet on New Year’s Day, it may be difficult to sustain so start small.
And finally, be grateful for the opportunity to make a fresh start!
Happy New Year everyone - 2022 is your year to shine!
Krystal Stokes is the communications manager with Victoria Lifeline, a non-profit community service of the Victoria General Hospital Foundation.