Are New Year's resolutions a waste of time?

Jake Campling, Jackie Andrade, David J. Kavanagh and Jon May look to the research evidence.

The first of January is a fresh start for many in the Western world. Like the two headed Roman god Janus, from which January gets its name, we use New Year to look back into the past year and forward into the next. Many use the introspection, self-examination and orientation to the future to make New Year’s resolutions. It is a time when people join gyms and Google the term ‘diet’ (Dai et al., 2014), but by the end of the month, most of us will have failed to keep to our resolution. Understanding what helps us to succeed might help us defy the odds.

The universal fresh start

New Year’s resolutions are a recent tradition restricted to English-speaking countries (Thorner, 1951), but fresh starts are universal. Almost every culture has a date for a fresh start that represents an opportunity for introspection and renewal of control over personal behaviour. In Judaism, the 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are allocated to self-examination and repentance of sins from the past year. These sins are then washed away by the throwing of a symbolic piece of bread into a river on Yom Kippur. This is perhaps one of the most concrete expressions of a yearly fresh start.

Whilst the Jewish New Year has no traditions of making explicit personal goals, the strong theme of reflection on past failures and wrongdoing, combined with the idea of a fresh start, suggests that setting goals to be better next year is a common occurrence.

Many cultural fresh starts are associated with abstinence from vices. In western cultures, common NYRs are to quit smoking, drinking or fatty food, although there has been a shift towards abstinence from more abstract mentality and character improvement goals since the more straitened wartime years (Thorner, 1951). In Islam, two dates are associated with abstinence: the Islamic New Year Muharram (‘forbidden’) and the month of Ramadan. Throughout these dates, Muslims fast, refrain from sex, violence and other sins. These dates are also a spur to increase charitable behaviour and donations.

Why is it so hard?

While whole communities fast for Ramadan, very few people achieve their New Year’s resolutions. Only 9.2 per cent of people felt they succeeded in achieving their goal in 2017. A third of resolutions had already failed by the middle of January and, each year in the USA, two-thirds of gym memberships go unused (Statistic Brain Research Institute, 2017). So, what makes maintaining a new year’s resolutions so hard?

Part of the problem is that people are generally bad at ignoring their current state to make decisions about how they will feel in the future. Another part of the problem is that temptations are always available, so the decision to abstain is not only required on January 1st but must be made repeatedly in the days and weeks that follow. Each one of these decisions is made harder by the fact that we respond more strongly to rewards that are available right now than to rewards we shall receive after a delay (Bickel & Marsch, 2001). We are biologically programmed to live for the present.

Think back to when you made your New Year’s resolution. You were most likely relaxed, replete from festive food and in a holiday mood, perhaps surrounded by family and friends. Stresses from work were likely not at the top of your mind. On 1 January, 41 per cent of Americans commit to goals (Statistic Brain Research Institute, 2017) while detached from the situations in which they’ll be implementing these commitments. Few of the day-to-day pressures that make these commitments difficult are present. For example, the difficulty of buying ingredients and cooking a healthy meal, during a hectic day, is underestimated because the resolution is made during a more relaxed time.

It is not just the practical difficulty of sticking to resolutions that is underestimated. People also commonly underestimate the strength of the future cravings and desires that could derail their resolution. Someone planning to quit smoking will underestimate how much they will crave a cigarette in the future, especially if they’re not experiencing a craving or desire at that time (Sayette et al., 2008). When you make your NYR it’s likely that you won’t be craving the fatty food, alcohol or cigarettes that you plan to give up, especially if you have recently over-indulged. The so-called ‘empathy gap’ is working against you: how you feel now stops you empathising with your future self. Underestimating the power of unhealthy desires can lead to a lot of potential pitfalls for NYRs. Hofmann and colleagues (2012) gave 205 adults bleepers and instructed them to record any desires / cravings they were having when the beeper went off. They collected 7827 reports of desires. These showed that half our days are spent desiring doing or consuming something and, unfortunately for NYRs, half of these desires conflict with personal goals.

So, what can we do?

Get some social support. It can seem like a near impossible task to abstain from unhealthy foods, alcohol or anything you plan on giving up this year, especially when you consider the sheer volume of conflicting desires that you would have to be overcome. However, over Ramadan more than 1.5 billion Muslims manage to abstain from all food during the daytime for an entire month. So, can we learn anything from Ramadan about keeping resolutions? Just like NYRs, Ramadan is a near culture-wide commitment. However, in Ramadan everyone shares some behaviour goals. This comes with certain advantages. During Ramadan, in countries with a large Muslim population, it is uncommon to come across tempting foods or people eating during the day. Having a large population abstaining at the same time means that there is less temptation, social support and positive modelling to help resist any conflicting desires.

With NYRs we usually don’t have the same level of social support. However, these factors have been used by the public health campaigns Dry January and Stoptober, which create a large population with the same abstinence goal, and give people the sense that they are committed to something wider than just a personal aspiration. Dry January has substantial average effects. Even those who fail to have a dry month are still likely to see benefits at six months (de Visser et al., 2016), which is longer than most NYRs last. Dry January also increased drink refusal self-efficacy, which is how much an individual believes they will be able to turn down a drink in different situations. It represents an individual’s ability to combat their cravings across situations. This is important because motivations to abstain from cravings and achieve resolutions fluctuate.

Plan to stay in control. Tracking what situations put you at risk of falling back to the old behaviour give you the power to address them. Plan ahead if you know they are coming up – work out what you’ll say and do, and practise it if you need to. Have a backup strategy –how you’ll escape the situation, or ask someone for help.

Focus on short-term benefits of control. Many people will be familiar with how the desire to reduce their drinking varies between Friday night and Saturday morning. To successfully stick to a NYR, your motivation to follow it through must consistently outweigh the bombardment of temptations to relapse into old behaviours. When someone with a NYR to lose weight is faced with the option of buying a healthy lunch or the unhealthy lunch that they are craving, there is competition between two desires. The long-term desire to lose weight and be healthier at the end of the year is pitted against the desire for the immediately available tempting food. One problem with this kind of decision is the timescale. If you look at it rationally, the prospect of becoming healthier or living longer should outweigh any desires for unhealthy meals and snacks. However, we don’t always make these logical, long-term choices. Instead, we tend to discount or devalue rewards that we must wait for, a phenomenon known as delay discounting. The longer it is until you will receive the reward, the less you value it. The hyperbolic relationship between perceived value and time delay is often measured using money. For example, would you rather have £100 now or £300 in a year? The £300 is perceived as less valuable than £300 today because of the delay. It may even be perceived as less valuable than £100 now. When you’re making commitments on a year-long timescale, even rewards you see as very valuable are devalued when you won’t see substantial results for a long time. In contrast, the cigarettes, chocolate or beer have added potency to distract you from your resolution if they are available right now.

Unlike NYRs, both Ramadan and Dry January focus on changes over a limited period, rather than forever or a whole year. While the attempt is still subject to the challenges of delay discounting, our goals and rewards that are only a month away undergo far less discounting than goals we must wait a year to achieve. Even more immediate goals and benefits may further increase your ability to stay on track. A goal to stay on track for today, and a focus on the positive outcomes of achieving that goal, are more concrete and immediately motivating than a sole focus on long-term goals and benefits. It can also help you get back on track if a lapse does occur –each moment is a new opportunity to get in control.

Use imagery to strengthen motivation. A series of recent experiments has shown that a simple technique can reduce delay discounting. In a 2013 study, Daniel and colleagues used imagery of personal future events to help participants stay focused on the future. When participants in a delay discounting task imagined what they would be doing at specific times in the future, they more often made decisions based on the actual value of future rewards. Those with weight loss goals subsequently gave a more accurate valuation of their desire to lose weight and ate less on a putative taste test. To give yourself the best chance of succeeding with a NYR, you should not only value your long-term goals, you should also reduce the potency of immediate temptations.

Use cognitive psychology to deal with temptations. People sometimes assume that their cravings are physiological and will keep getting stronger until they are satisfied; for example, that cravings for food are based on physiological hunger or cravings for a cigarette are based on the physiological reactions to nicotine levels in the body. However, there is substantial evidence that cravings are also cognitive, involving conscious and effortful contemplation of how satisfying indulgence will be. In a study of air stewards on long and short flights, Dar et al (2010) showed that their cravings for cigarettes were related to the time left until the plane landed, not the time elapsed since the plane took off.

This cognitive component can be a nuisance, as anyone who has been distracted from their work by an urge to drink coffee or eat lunch will appreciate. It is also an opportunity, because it means that well-targeted cognitive tasks can neutralise cravings. Van Dillen and Andrade (2016) asked commuters on an afternoon train to select what they most wanted to eat from a menu. In the control condition, they stayed focused on their choices by writing them down. In the distraction condition, they completed some unrelated pencil-and-paper tasks such as solving anagrams. This distraction not only reduced cravings for food, it also changed people’s behaviour, increasing the proportion who chose a pen rather than chocolate as a reward for taking part in the study. Distraction is one strategy for keeping unhealthy cravings in check.

Cognitive psychology provides some clues about what sort of distractions work best. In 2005, we published a theory of desire that posited a central role for mental imagery (Kavanagh, Andrade & May, 2005). We suggested that cravings for foods and drugs are sustained by vivid imagery of what it would look, smell, taste and feel like to consume the substance. Substantial laboratory research has supported this idea (May, Kavanagh & Andrade, 2015). Several teams have tested the concept in people’s everyday surroundings by asking them to carry out a task to block this desire imagery whenever they experience a craving. Bärbel Knäuper in the USA asked participants to imagine enjoying their favourite activity (Knäuper et al., 2011); Eva Kemps in Australia asked participants to watch a flickering visual noise display, previously shown to reduce the vividness of mental imagery (Kemps & Tiggemann, 2013); Jessica Skorka-Brown in the UK asked participants to play Tetris for a few minutes (Skorka-Brown et al., 2015). In each study, these simple tasks weakened participant’s cravings.

A new counselling technique uses these ideas to help people stay focused on their future goals. Functional Imagery Training takes what we know about the role of mental imagery in substance cravings, and uses it to create strong desires – ‘cravings’ – for healthy goals. It uses person-centred counselling methods to elicit individuals’ ideas for change. These ideas then become the content of a series of exercises that use multi-sensory imagery to amplify their emotional force, not only to strengthen desire for the end goal but to build desire and self-efficacy for the behaviours that can help achieve the goal. For example, if someone makes an NYR to train for a marathon, Functional Imagery Training helps them to bring their mental focus closer, to imagine the pleasure or reward of a run after work tonight. Functional Imagery Training also teaches people to be their own therapist, using frequent everyday behaviours, like waiting for a kettle to boil, to cue imagery practice so that thinking about the goal becomes a mental habit. The idea is that, when faced with that critical choice between the future goal and present temptation, Functional Imagery Training helps the goal-related imagery come readily and vividly to mind. Initial findings have been encouraging (Andrade et al., 2016).

Top tips

So, here are our top tips for achieving your goal this year:

• Start by making that NYR. It is not a waste of time. You are ten times more likely to achieve your goal if you make a resolution than if you do not.

• Make it about what you want to achieve today, and for the rest of this month.

• Garner social support and strengthen your commitment by telling everyone what you plan to do. Splash it across social media!

• Then, sit down and spend a few minutes imagining, as vividly as you can, what you will do today to get started on your plan, what you will do next, and how good it will feel to succeed each day.

About the authors

- Jake Campling, School of Psychology, Cognition Institute, University of Plymouth. 'My New Year's resolution is to read instead of looking at screens before bed.'

- Jackie Andrade, School of Psychology, Cognition Institute, University of Plymouth. 'My New Year’s resolution is to stop taking work home with me.' 

- David J. Kavanagh, Centre for Children’s Health Research, Queensland University of Technology. 'I prefer not to wait for new year. Perhaps the best resolution is not to make any.'

- Jon May, School of Psychology, Cognition Institute, University of Plymouth. 'I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but I might now that I have seen the evidence they can work. Perhaps mine should be Finish writing up papers before agreeing to new tasks.'

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