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How to choose a New Year's resolution and stick to it

Dr William Van Gordon, Associate Professor in Contemplative Psychology at the University of Derby Online Learning, explores ways to choose a New Year's resolution and the best ways to ensure you stick to them.

By Dr William Van Gordon - 17 December 2019

According to a survey conducted by YouGov, the most popular New Year's resolutions are exercise more, eat healthier, save money, lose weight, reduce stress, stick to a budget, get more sleep, spend more time with family, learn a new skill and travel more. However, the same survey found that around one third of people do not stick to their New Year's resolutions and a slightly greater proportion of people (38%) only maintain some of their resolutions. There are many reasons why New Year's resolutions fail ranging from being unrealistic in the first place to a lack of planning or motivation. The following strategies are intended to help maximise your ability to choose a New Year's resolution that is realistic and that you are likely to adhere to.

Be in control

Make sure that you choose a resolution that is within your control to implement. For example, setting a New Year's resolution of "get more sleep and reduce stress" might sound like a good idea but, as discussed in my previous posts on techniques for increasing sleep quality and reducing stress, improving stress levels and the quality of sleep typically requires learning new psychological techniques or lifestyle changes that amount to more than simply deciding that we are going to sleep better and be less stressed next year. In other words, we have more control and are more likely to succeed if we set a resolution for the new year of "take 15 minutes a day to study and practise techniques to improve sleep quality and reduce stress".

Contemplate the change

Given that lifelong habits can be difficult to break, taking time to contemplate the change beforehand normally pays off in the long run. December is a good month to do this by thinking about why the proposed change is important to us, what benefits it will bring, what it will entail and how we can plan for it, and what would be the consequences of not implementing the change. Taking time to reflect in this manner helps us to start psychologically adjusting to the proposed change as well as instil a desire to achieve our goal.

Start early

Consider starting your New Year's resolution even before December has ended. Getting started is often one of the most difficult aspects of initiating a change but having done so, we often derive a sense of satisfaction due to having taken a positive step forward. We can then 'hit the ground running' at the start of January while feeling good due to being ahead of the game.

Be specific

Goals are often more easily accomplished when they are specific. For example, rather than "exercise more", making a New Year's resolution to "exercise for at least 30 minutes a day four times a week" reflects a more considered and specific target against which we can easily measure our success.

Consider psychological factors

It's generally not advisable to consider the body as something that is separate from the mind, and vice-versa. In the context of setting a New Year's resolution, this means that the chances of successfully implementing changes that on the surface appear to relate to the body, such as exercise more, eat healthier, lose weight or sleep more, are heavily influenced by our mental state. Therefore, as part of planning a New Year's resolution, consider what psychological strategies can be adopted to help facilitate the change. For example, in order to increase the likelihood of adhering to a new exercise regime, consider buying a book or attending a course on self-motivation. Also, don't underestimate the importance of psychological factors such as moral support and encouragement from family and friends, as well as from other individuals that might be working toward a similar goal.

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About the author

Dr William Van Gordon

Dr William Van Gordon
Associate Professor in Contemplative Psychology

Associate Professor in Contemplative Psychology, Dr William Van Gordon is a Chartered Psychologist and international expert in the research and practice of meditation and mindfulness.

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