How to make a New Year's resolution...and stick to it

What's the psychology behind changing your behaviour?
09 January 2018

Interview with 

Dr Benjamin Gardner, Kings College London




"Get fitter"...."lose weight"...."learn another language"....Most people approach New Year's resolutions with the idea that it will kickstart a permanent change in our behaviour, going from a slog to an automatic habit - what’s known as reaching a habit peak. But why do we make New Year’s resolutions in the first place and do they really work?  Izzie Clarke spoke to psychologist Benjamin Gardner from King’s College London...

Benjamin - There’s a popular myth out there that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. And I’ve looked into the source of this myth and it comes from a book that was written by a plastic surgeon in America in the 1960s in which he found that, among his patients, it took them an average of three weeks to get used to their new appearance. Now, as far as I know, that’s the sole evidence base for this claim that it takes 21 days to form a habit.

Around 10 years ago now, a colleague of mine at University College London conducted a study in which to study the habit formation process in humans. What she found was that 66 days was the average amount of time it took for people to reach their habit peak. Some people reached their peak in 18 days, other people didn't reach their peak at all in the 12 weeks. But, it was forcase that if they kept going, after 254 days they would reach their habit peaks. So there’s great variation between people, between different behaviours in regards to the length of time for things to start to feel like they’re becoming an ingrained part of our everyday routine.

Izzie - I have to ask: is there anything special about the 1st January in terms of changing this behaviour? Why do we even have this New Year’s resolution?

Benjamin - I think it’s helpful in one aspect in that it gives us something specific. We know that we are going to start our behaviour change attempt on 1st January and it’s a general principle of behaviour change that the more specific your plans are with regards to now only what you’re going to do, but in what situation you’re going to do it. The more specific our plans are in that respect, the more likely we are to stick to it.

But I think, on the other hand, I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about the 1st January. It’s useful to have a concrete date mind with regards to when you’re going to start changing your behaviour, but it doesn’t need to be the 1st January. You could equally set your behaviour change start date as say the 1st February or the 1st of March, or any day in the year.

In fact, I think because there is so much pressure to try and think of something you want to change in terms of your behaviour, I think it can backfire. I think people can have a go at changing their behaviour and be unsuccessful because their New Year’s resolutions often were unrealistic or they weren’t properly thought through.

Izzie - How important is having a plan for all of this?

Benjamin - It’s very important to have a plan because it’s well established within psychology that people often intend to make changes to their behaviour but, for whatever reason, they don’t get round to making those changes. One of the best ways that we can put our intentions into action is by forming a concrete plan specifying exactly what we’re going to do in exactly which situation we’re going to do it.

For example, if you want to lose weight, then you shouldn’t just set yourself a goal of losing weight, you need to think about what specific behaviours are you going to try and change in order to lose weight. It may be that you want to, for example, eat fruit snacks instead of eating unhealthy snacks while you’re watching TV. But then you can specify further to say well, what I’m going to do is I’m going to identify particular events where I snack, for example when I’m watching TV, and that’s where I’m going to substitute in the fruit for the unhealthy food that I eat at present. So having a plan is very useful because it helps to specify the details of exactly what we’re going to do. Just having a goal of changing your behaviour, or even just achieving some kind of health outcome is not going to be as useful as having a plan that tells you exactly what you’re going to do and in exactly which situation you’re going to go about doing it.

Izzie - Oh, I see. Because my New Year’s resolution was to get fitter, so you're saying that actually I can’t just be as broad as that, I have to have a real plan of break it down into the different components

Benjamin - Yes. I think if you’re plan is to get fitter then you need to think about which physical activities in particular are you going to do. Then having decided on that, and I’d argue that you should think that through very carefully, because you want to make sure that try doing physical activities that are realistic for you. Then you move to the next stage of saying okay, in which specific situations am I going to do those particular behaviours? So you might say to yourself, for example, I’m going to go to the gym more and when I go to the gym I’m going to use the running machine. In which case the next step is to say when exactly are you going to the gym? Are you going to go on your lunch break? Are you going to go after work? You need to think about exactly when you’re going to put these things into action, and the more specific you can be in that respect the better.

Izzie - I have to ask, do you have a New Year’s resolution for 2018?

Benjamin - I’m afraid I don’t. Perhaps I’m becoming more skeptical over time. I don't have any New Year’s resolutions. I also have two young children and I’ve found that the best formed plans can fall by the wayside when you have young children. So no, this year, I am not resolving to change my behaviour in any way.



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