Breaking bad (behaviour) - making resolutions that stick

3 February 2014Behavioural Insights Unit

Categorypop culture

Tagpop culture

Even if you don’t make New Year’s resolutions, it’s hard to avoid being affected by them.

New Year Fresh Start

Even if you don’t make New Year’s resolutions, it’s hard to avoid being affected by them. The beginning of a new year is typically accompanied by a seemingly ritualistic flurry of commitment driven activity: gym attendance spikes as people seek to burn off their Christmas indulgence; television advertisements for weight loss and financial products air more frequently; dozens of articles and musings—like this one—appear in newspapers and magazines telling us what we should change (less drinking, more saving); even every day conversations with friends act as a reminder of their path of self-improvement (“No dessert for me”).

While any attempt to commit to positive behaviour change should be encouraged, the weight of evidence suggests New Year’s resolutions generally don’t stick, and if they do, they don’t produce the long-term change we seek.  British psychologist Richard Wiseman recently surveyed over 3000 people attempting to achieve a range of resolutions and found that 88% of participants failed, despite 52% being confident of success at the beginning . Of course, you don’t need to see the statistics to know this – chances are that most people will have either failed, or know someone who has failed, at keeping their resolution. 

Why then do we persist in making New Year’s resolutions? One potential reason is optimism bias (a bias where a person believes they are at less risk of experiencing a negative event than others). Despite evidence to the contrary, we might believe that our resolutions will stick and, combined with the positive feeling we get from our perceived future self-enhancement, this drives us to engage in the resolution setting process. Our optimism bias may also lead us to be too positive in setting our resolutions, overestimating the impact the change will have on our lives and underestimating the effort needed to make it happen.

There are broader cultural influences and social norms at play too. Resolving to improve your behaviour at the start of a New Year dates back as far as the ancient Babylonians, who made promises in order to earn the favour of the gods. For many, the New Year continues to signal the start of new beginnings, a clean slate on which to improve. It’s estimated that around 40% of Americans still continue to make New Year’s resolutions despite the poor overall success rates.     

Key moments do count

If you did make a New Year’s resolution for 2014, don’t worry, there’s no need to abandon it just yet.  How receptive we are to change can fluctuate depending on the time of the year. Forthcoming research by Katherine Milkman, Jason Riis and Hengchen Dai in the journal Management Science provides evidence of a “fresh start effect” The researchers found that key moments (e.g. the start of a new year) separate the passage of time allowing us to relegate past imperfections to a previous period and motivating us to aspirational behaviours in the new period. Committing then to change your behaviour at a key moment could provide that little bit of extra willpower that makes the difference.  

Making resolutions that stick (and stay)

One New Year’s morning, many years ago, I wrote a list of resolutions at a hotel I was staying at. When I returned home, I put them in my desk drawer with the intention that I’d look at them in 12 months and see how far I’d come. It should come as no surprise that when I pulled out the paper a year later, I hadn’t achieved any of the commitments I’d made—I could barely remember making them.

A poorly formed commitment—mine were too vague, too ambitious and missing implementation intentions—is much less likely to stick and might not even last the first few weeks. To make the most of the key moment and maximise the chances of successful change, the resolution should be well formed and be supported by a genuine intention to make it happen (this means thinking about how and when you’ll achieve it).

So what makes for a good New Year’s resolution? While the answer to this will vary from person to person, there are some common things we can do to maximise our chances of success. The EAST principles (Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely) are a useful tool here for crafting a resolution that will stick in the long term:

  • Keep it simple (EASY)—having a long list of resolutions can feel overwhelming. Instead, focus on a handful of tangible and attainable goals. Following a plan that says “walk for 30 mins, four times per week”) will be easier to follow than resolving to “lose some weight”. Making your goal a positive one (“I’ll have an apple every day) will improve how you feel about it and increase your chances of success compared to a negatively framed goal (“No soft drink, biscuits or chocolate”).
  • Make it salient (ATTRACTIVE)—try to make the resolutions as prominent as possible; don’t leave them tucked away in a drawer. If the aim is to lose weight, put your workout gear and shoes near the entrance to your home, this way it’ll act as a reminder of your resolution when you walk in.
  • Go public (SOCIAL)—it might feel awkward to do it, but telling a friend or family member about your resolutions is a good way to hold yourself to them. Making your resolutions public is a type of commitment device — a way to lock yourself into a course of action that you might not otherwise choose but that produces a desired result . By making it public, you’ll benefit from an innate desire to be consistent with what you announced , avoid potential humiliation from failing and hopefully leverage your support networks to help you along the way (such as a running partner).
  • Make it a habit (TIMELY)—there’s no golden rule as to how long it takes for a habit to form; everyone forms habits differently and it could take a few days or several weeks.  Repeating the desired behaviour, again and again, until it becomes part of your daily routine is a great way to achieve lasting behavioural change. Don’t lose heart if you slip up a couple of times along the way – this is a normal occurrence and the key is to keep working towards your goal.  Breaking your goal into smaller parts—with deadlines—will also assist. When you achieve smaller short term goals, you’ll help build momentum for further changes throughout the year.


Chris Allen is a member of DPC’s Behavioural Insights Unit