The psychology behind New Year’s resolutions and why it’s so difficult to stick to them – Q&A with Dr Tim Kurz

14/01/2022 | 4 MINS
Dr Tim Kurz Staff Portrait

Already struggling with that resolution you made just a few weeks ago? Check out the psychology behind New Year’s resolutions and why it’s so difficult to stick to them – Q&A with Dr Tim Kurz.

We all have the best intentions when it comes to New Year's resolutions - New Year, new me! No matter how motivated we are to reach our goals at the start of the year, most resolutions will sadly fail. We caught up with Dr Tim Kurz, a Senior Lecturer in social psychology from the School of Psychological Science, to find out all about the psychology behind New Year's resolutions and why it's so difficult to stick to them.

Why do people set New Year’s resolutions?

The simple answer is because it has become the social ‘norm’ to do so. We see and hear others around us start to talk about them in late December and feel a sense that we should set a few of our own. 
The tradition has a long history within human societies, with examples of similar practices found right back to the Babylonians 4,000 years ago, as well as ancient Rome. Since around the 1700s the setting of the modern version of New Year’s resolutions has become a very common practice within various cultures. Part of the appeal of making resolutions seems to be to share them with other people. Telling others we aspire to be better seems to position us as ‘good people’ and it (sort of) keeps us accountable.

Confused student

Why is it difficult to stick to New Year’s resolutions?

A large amount of our daily behaviours tend to be motivated by our unconscious, automatic habits rather than careful deliberative thought. We unconsciously reach for the same types of foods, use the same forms of transport and interact with our loved ones in ways that have become so habitual to us over time that they become very difficult to shift. 
Over time, our repetitive ways of behaving tend to become automatically cued by certain contexts, situations and environments, completely independent of our more conscious or deliberative thought processes. The setting of our resolutions is something we do very deliberatively, using that more conscious part of our psychological system, and often at a time and place completely separate from our regular daily lives
The other reason that resolutions are so hard to stick to is that we underestimate how strongly our behaviour is influenced by the other people in our social environment. Firstly, seeing others following similar habits that we’re trying to break can trigger a cue for us to behave in the same way.  Moreover,  others around us who continue the habits that we seek to change often find our attempts confronting or annoying. This is partly because our attempts at change may come across as social or moral judgement of them. 
So it may be much more effective to try to make shared resolutions together with important others in your life.

Person on top of mountain at dusk

What advice would you give to people to improve their chances of sticking to their New Year’s resolutions?

  1. Set resolutions focused on behaving in ways that might be of benefit to others as opposed to setting goals that are centred around ‘self-improvement’. Individualistic goals can be harder to stick to - because if you fail, the only person you’re ‘letting down’ is yourself.

  2. Focus on ‘approach goals’ (i.e. things you will do), rather than ‘avoid goals’ (i.e. things you will stop doing). If you wish to set an avoid goal (e.g. stop drinking alcohol), instead try to re-work this into more of an approach goal. For example: “When I go to BBQs at my friends’ houses, I will take alcohol-free beer with me”. 

  3. Set ‘maximal’ standards instead of ‘minimal’ standards. Often, we tend to set ourselves up to fail by making and evaluating our resolutions in terms of minimal standards, where we convince ourselves that there is a ‘minimal’ standard that we have to reach in order to feel a sense of achievement, with any departure from that is seen as a complete failure. Instead set goals that are termed ‘maximal’ standards, where any incremental shift in that direction is still seen as a ‘good’ thing.

  4. The best time to try to break old habits is when the environment around you is undergoing some natural form of change, such as moving house or changing jobs. Therefore, if you are looking to reduce your alcohol consumption at after work drinks or to start cycling to work, you’d be much better off making that resolution the week before starting a new job than you would doing it on New Year’s Eve just before returning to an existing job. 

  5. If you want the best chance of sticking to your resolutions, make them SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based).

Key take-outs:

  • Try to form new habits just before changes in your environment are expected to happen, e.g., Starting a new job or moving house.  
  • Make shared resolutions with people around you, otherwise there is a chance that others could potentially be part of the reason you break your resolutions.
  • It’s ok if you have slip-ups along the way to reaching your goal.  Try not to adopt an all-or-nothing mindset but instead work towards incremental changes.

    Interested in Psychology? Find out more about studying Psychology at UWA.

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