New year... same old you? Why we're going wrong with resolutions

·5-min read

Words by Gavin Newsham

Watch: How to keep your new year's resolutions

We aren't yet two weeks into 2022, but most who set ourselves New Year’s resolutions will now be struggling to maintain them.

Indeed, a survey by the sports social network Strava found that January 12 is the day when most people call it a day and revert to type – they even call it ‘Quitters’ Day’.

While we all set out with good intentions, often the motivation wanes and the goals you’ve set yourself fall too easily by the wayside. Bas Verplanken is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath.

A specialist in behavioural habits and health behaviours, he believes that the reason so many people fail to see through their New Year’s resolutions is because they underestimate the size of the challenge they have set themselves. “So many attempts fail because people just don’t realise how strongly their old habits are cemented in the circumstances in which they perform them,” he says.

Mid section of woman breaking cigarette against white background
Good intentions...but will they last? (Getty Images)

But how can you get over those moments of weakness or stop giving into temptation? And what can you do to give yourself a much better chance of making those resolutions work?

Take ‘Dry January’ where drinkers endeavour to give up alcohol for the month. An understandable and often necessary abstention after the booziness of Christmas, it’s become one of the most popular resolutions in recent years – not that we’re actually any good at it.

According to Professor Verplanken, only a quarter of us will have maintained our resolutions by the end of January while fewer than one in ten will have kept them up for the whole year. It’s borne out by a recent poll by Volvic Touch of Fruit that showed that over half of Britons who give up alcohol in January usually give up giving it up by the second week of the month.

The survey of 2,000 adults in the UK also found that 21 per cent know that they won’t last the entire month and that 30 per cent would be satisfied if they could just stick to their plan for a fortnight.

Read more: Reaching your resolutions: 7 Tips to get fit in 2022

Doing Dry January? Are you sure? (Getty Images)
Doing Dry January? Are you sure? (Getty Images)

The issue, says Professor Verplanken, is not just that we tend to set ourselves unrealistic targets but that we also fail to lay the groundwork to give us a better chance of success.

“People over-estimate their ability to control their behaviour and under-estimate the power of the environment,” he says. Habits are controlled by the environment where they occur, not by people’s willpower.

"Yes, we can override habits, but if one does not recognise the cues that trigger them, these cues will easily take over again.”

Or, in other words, we tend to set the arbitrary date of January 1st to begin our new regime without first thinking about all the practical steps we might need to take beforehand.

So if you’re looking to improve your diet or lose weight, try and remove all those items from the cupboard or fridge that you know are bad for you, or that you’ll be tempted by, and replace them with healthier options.

Selection of food high in sugar, copy space
In the cupboard, or in your tum? (Getty Images)

And that’s not what we do. The Volvic survey, for example, found that 23 per cent of respondents actually decide to leave their house, just to get away from the many temptations inside.

“Try and be conscious of how and when exactly the old habits are triggered,” adds Professor Verplanken. Similarly, if your New Year resolution is to get fitter, first plan, realistically, how you intend to factor your new regime into your daily schedule.

If you don’t leave enough time for exercise, then you’re already fighting a losing battle.

If you’re currently knee-deep in resolutions and struggling to maintain your motivation then maybe drop one or two of them for now and concentrate on the one that is most important to you as evidence suggests that the more challenges you take on the more likely you are to fail on all fronts. In other words, don’t bite off more than you can chew.

Read more: 18 Resolutions To Get Rich in 2022

New Year Concept
Let's just start with one... (Getty Images)

When you do suffer setbacks, you need to regard them as blips, temporary bumps in the road that you need to overcome to keep you heading in the right direction. Professor Verplanken suggests ‘anchoring’ your goals and intentions onto an important value, something that you genuinely cherish in life.

That way, you will be spurred on to success, even when your inspiration and enthusiasm might be waning.

You might also want to try and project yourself into your ideal future, picturing where you want to be and how you’re going to get there. “Keep in mind what benefits are waiting for you,” says Professor Verplanken. “Try to put yourself in that future and look back at your old habits. Ask yourself how much happier, healthier and better would such a future be?”

An old female sportsperson with black plastic water bottle doing sport outside in the countryside.
It doesn't have to be January - and it doesn't have to be a lot. (Getty Images)

And remember, says Professor Verplanken, you don’t need to wait another 12 months to try again if your resolutions do crash and burn. Verplanken himself is a case in point.

Thirty years ago, he intended to give up smoking as a New Year’s resolution but soon realised that he was just putting it off and quit in December instead – and he hasn’t smoked since.

As he now says: “New Year’s resolutions can be made at any time of the year!”

Watch: How to keep up with your New Year's resolutions

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