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How to Stick to those Resolutions

Welcome back and welcome to 2021! I hope everyone has had a lovely New Year even without the ability to celebrate it together.

I, like many people I know, am prone to making New Year’s Resolutions and then never sticking to them. With the start of the new year, I wanted to look at why this may be and how to make effective resolutions that can be stuck to.

About New Year’s Resolutions

The new year is a popular time for many when deciding to start a new life. The decision to start new habits or set new resolutions at the beginning of the year is known as “the fresh start effect”[1]. The fresh start effect can be found when goals are created at the start of a new week, month, academic term or the beginning of the new year. Part of the reasoning for this is that the fresh start effect fits with our idea of the “positive future me”. It helps to distance ourselves from a past of imperfection, e.g. “I won’t be the same person I was last year” or “I will be more organised this week”. It also allows us a bigger picture of what we see of our lives. It interrupts the trivial activities of day-to-day living and helps to structure the goal making by allowing for a shared understanding of time and timetabling. It serves to help mental accounting.

In a study published December 2020, it was found that 55% of resolution setters felt they were successful in keeping to their resolutions a year on [2]. The most popular category for resolutions concerned physical health. In order of popularity the other categories were weight loss, eating habits, personal growth/self-improvement, mental health and sleep, and work and studies. Other categories included drinking habits, hobbies and love.

The Concept of Push/Pull Goals

I first came across the concept of push/pull goals in a video on YouTube. The idea is that not all goals/resolutions are created equally. A pull goal is a goal that you feel naturally drawn towards and that feel effortless in completing. For example, say that you want to have decided that this year, you want to start listening to audiobooks more and you love listening to audiobooks. This goal is driven by passion and there is little effort taken in keeping to it. These are usually easier to stick to. On the other hand, push goals are ones that you have to force yourself into. For example, your new year’s resolution is to run three times a week, but actually you’re not that into exercise, and you’re doing it for your health more than your enjoyment. These goals rely on willpower and determination, thus making them much more hard work than pull goals.

Naturally, and due to society, we are driven towards push goals. We are taught to pick ambition rather than comfort and enjoyment, but the truth is to succeed is to either have a balance of both push and pull goals, or to turn your push goals into pull goals. For example, if you both decide to run more and listen to more audiobooks, listening to audiobooks while you run may help to turn that running push goal into a pull goal.

If you’ve got a list of goals for the new year, go through them. Check that they’re a balance of push and pull goals and maybe ask yourself if there is any way to make the push goals less effortful.  

Learning Self Control

When it comes to goal making, there is a large emphasis placed on self-control and discipline. In the pursuit of goals, and especially long-term goals, temptations that run against the goal often accompany the journey. It was originally believed that self-control, when regarding goal attainment, primarily exhibited as response-inhibition. Response-inhibition is the act of stopping a behavioural response brought up by temptation such as not drinking on a night out because your goals is to drink less or ignoring the urge to sleep longer in the morning because your goal is to get up earlier. The problem with response-inhibition as a form of self-control is that it is extremely effortful which can, in some cases, reduce self-control. Another recent study published this year explored different self-control strategies and found that response-inhibition was not conducive to goal-progress or attainment[3]. Instead, the strategies they found useful are classified as antecedent-focused self-control strategies and include:

  • Situation Selection – Avoiding situations where temptation is present
  • Situation Modification – Altering a situation to minimize the influence of temptation
  • Distraction – Diverting attention away from tempting stimuli
  • Reappraisal – Changing the way you think about temptation to make it seem less appealing

These strategies are understood to be proactive self-control where temptation is anticipated in the future and self-control is initiated ahead of time. Following the example from earlier, the person who wishes to drink less may drive to a party instead of getting a lift in order to eliminate any temptation to drink (this would-be situation modification). This is instead of response-inhibition which the authors classify as a reactive type of self-control.

While the planning ahead involved with proactive self-control strategies may be effortful, research suggests that it is much less effortful than trying to avoid temptation when in the moment. So, if you are employing some new year’s resolutions or goals, think about how you can actively plan self-control in order to stack on track with what you wish to achieve.

Other Factors Involved with Goal Achievement

Planning

Following on from above and diving a bit more specifically into planning there has been some research to suggest that planning generally is positively associated with goal achievement. Planfulness is hypothesised to be a structure of three items:

  • Cognitive Strategies – tactics to maintain goal progress
  • Mental Flexibility – capability to transitions from goals to concrete decisions and behaviour
  • Temporal Orientation – whether you focus on the present or the future. It is suggested that if you are oriented to the future, you are more likely to make present sacrifices to further the progress of your long-term goals

Research has suggested that ‘highly planful’ people make better goal progress than those who do not implement planning strategies[4][5]. You can assess your own level of planfulness with the scale used in these studies here.

It’s About the Journey not the Destination

A problem with goal setting is what happens when the goal has been set? Having an endpoint for a goal in one way is good as it allows you to refocus on something new however with no motivation for that goal anymore, you may disengage with the behaviour all together. Think of a person who wishes to become a runner and signs up for a marathon as their goal end point. At the point of that marathon, the person has become a runner, and they run the marathon to mark their achievements in becoming a runner. However, after that marathon, they now have no goal, or motivation. Regular running ceases and the person falls out of the running habit. Another example is a study that looked at the competitors involved in “The Biggest Loser” 6 years on, finding that all but one had regained a large amount of weight following competition end[6].

So how to rectify this disengagement problem? One way it through intrinsic motivations such as enjoyment or a continual improvement through consistent challenges. This would fit in with our concepts of ‘pull goals’ from earlier. Another suggested way is to engage with reflective thinking; to look back and consider how you’ve changed from the beginning to the end. Research suggests that looking back on your own personal growth after having reached a goal serves as a motivation in itself to continue the behaviours[7]. Perhaps when you’re setting goals, make sure to document along the way or at the end reflect on the process. This may help you keep the behaviour up even after you’ve achieved your specific goal.

Getting Support

Lastly is that support from other people can help keep you on track with your resolutions. Research into teams vs individuals finds that peers often have a positive impact on behaviour change and goal attainment and one study in particular found that being part of a team is an incentive in itself to promote gym use[8]. Telling someone about your resolutions, or even better, completing your goal with other people may help you to get to complete your goal.

Atomic Habits

In the book written by James Clear, Atomic Habits covers many aspects surrounding goal achievement and much of what I have written about in this blog post. The book is specifically dedicated to effective behaviour change through small habits, however I feel it is relevant for understanding how to keep your resolutions and would recommend anyone to read it/listen to the audiobook.

The book details the importance of building systems instead of goals, the importance of considering your identity when changing your behaviour, and Clear’s 4 laws of behaviour change. The audiobook is on audible, and the book is available in most book stores. There is also a good concise video on YouTube by Ali Abdaal summarising the main points from the book.


[1] Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman, and Jason Riis, ‘The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior’, Management Science, 60.10 (2014), 2563–82 <https://doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2014.1901&gt;.

[2] Martin Oscarsson and others, ‘A Large-Scale Experiment on New Year’s Resolutions: Approach-Oriented Goals Are More Successful than Avoidance-Oriented Goals’, PloS One, 15.12 (2020), e0234097 <https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0234097&gt;.

[3] Laverl Z. Williamson and Benjamin M. Wilkowski, ‘Nipping Temptation in the Bud: Examining Strategic Self-Control in Daily Life’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46.6 (2020), 961–75 <https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167219883606&gt;.

[4] Rita M. Ludwig, Sanjay Srivastava, and Elliot T. Berkman, ‘Predicting Exercise With a Personality Facet: Planfulness and Goal Achievement’, Psychological Science, 30.10 (2019), 1510–21 <https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797619868812&gt;.

[5] Rita M. Ludwig, Sanjay Srivastava, and Elliot T. Berkman, ‘Planfulness: A Process-Focused Construct of Individual Differences in Goal Achievement’, ed. by Brent Donnellan, Collabra: Psychology, 4.28 (2018) <https://doi.org/10.1525/collabra.136&gt;.

[6] Erin Fothergill and others, ‘Persistent Metabolic Adaptation 6 Years after “The Biggest Loser” Competition’, Obesity, 24.8 (2016), 1612–19 <https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.21538&gt;.

[7] Szu-Chi Huang and Jennifer Aaker, ‘It’s the Journey, Not the Destination: How Metaphor Drives Growth after Goal Attainment.’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117.4 (20190624), 697 <https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000164&gt;.

[8] Simon Condliffe, Ebru Işgın, and Brynne Fitzgerald, ‘Get Thee to the Gym! A Field Experiment on Improving Exercise Habits’, Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, 70 (2017), 23–32 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socec.2017.07.007&gt;.

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