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What is it about New Year’s Resolutions?

12 January 2022 - Dr Jan Orman

What is it about New Year’s Resolutions?

I know people who hate New Year’s Eve – they see it as enforced merriment and ridiculous joie de vivre in a world that hasn’t changed a jot since the misery of the year before. They are the New Year’s equivalent of Scrooge at Christmas. The ones who want to take the fun out of this small human celebration and bring us all thudding back to earth.

It really is good to let go of miserable reality from time to time and just have fun. Welcoming in a new year seems like as good an excuse as any. And along with the fun comes a sense of optimism, a belief, however fleeting, that this year things will be better than the last.

How we all need a dose of optimism this year! Probably more than any other year in most of our lifetimes. Many of us have realised that we can’t just sit and wait for things to get better, we need to take some action.

Losing weight in the New Year

It’s such a common resolution isn’t it!

There is some interesting research around dieting resolutions by Katharine Milkman and her team in Philadelphia from 2012. They were wondering if there were temporal markers motivating aspirational behaviour. They looked at Google searches for “diet” over 9 years and found a predictable pattern of peaks in searches at the beginning of weeks and months, and a huge peak in searches immediately after New Year.

That surge of New Year optimism is not limited to those of us who want to change our bodies or our behaviours. There’s a phenomenon on the stock market called the January Effect that has seen stock prices rise every year in January. It has had economists and psychologists fascinated for many years. There are many theories but could it just be New Year optimism that drives it?

Do New Year Resolutions work?

(I think I can see you smiling!)

John Norcross and his colleagues in the late 1980s showed that 50% of Americans made some sort of New Year’s Resolution. 6 months later only 40% of those people had stuck with their resolve. Frankly, I’m surprised that the numbers are so high. Behavioural change of any kind is very difficult and people tend to be a bit unrealistic about their expectations of themselves, probably a bit over-optimistic as the year turns around. I wonder if the supported research environment contributed to that 40%?

Given that it is natural for humans to want to make new beginnings at times that feel perfect for fresh starts, how can we do so without letting ourselves down?

Step One: Keep it real

Most of us would like to be someone else or even just a thinner, fitter, smarter, more successful version of ourselves. It is true though that big change can only be achieved one step at a time – and those steps often need to be small ones. It’s so frustrating!

Opting for realistic goals is the first step to making resolutions that you have a chance of keeping.

Step Two: Make a firm plan

So many of us indulge in wishful thinking when it comes to achieving goals or changing behaviour. You need a plan, and not just a loose plan. You need to think about how you are going to make the change and overcome the barriers that will inevitably get in the way.

Let me give you an example:

Every year, on New Year’s Eve, I resolve to eat more healthily. The resolutions are often vague and unrealistically ambitious. Even if it goes well for the first few days, on 5th January it all comes unstuck. 5th January is my birthday. Someone inevitably bakes me a cake, brings champagne, invites me to dinner – you know, all the things that it would be so rude not to participate in. My healthy eating is ruined and it all suddenly seems pointless.

Now I know there are a lot of things wrong with that story.

  • I didn’t define what I meant by “eat more healthily”
  • I didn’t make a clear plan
  • I didn’t consider in advance what I would do about my birthday and put contingency plans in place
  • My faulty thinking led me to think a small glitch in the plan meant it was “game over.”

I think I need to do a bit of SMART goal setting when it comes to New Year’s Resolutions, don’t you?

There’s a section of the myCompass program about setting smart goals – that might be a good place to start.

Step 3: Keep trying

If things go pear-shaped in the first week of January, remember that the following Monday is the beginning of a new week and the 1st of February is not far away. There’s always another opportunity for a new beginning. And next time you will be better prepared for the things that get in the way.

Dr Jan Orman
Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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