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Psychology of Keeping Resolutions

Updated: Jan 6

The months have passed and we’re back to where we are every single year. The year is coming to an end and the limited days left are passing quickly before a new one ushers in. If you’re like me, then the part of your mind that plans for the future is a little more active than usual. Goals are being set, retrospection is rampant and resolutions are being manifested. In this blog, find out why we keep resolutions at the start of a new year, why we fail to stick with them and how to effectively keep your resolutions. 

According to a survey in the US, While 62% of the respondents set resolutions for themselves, only 8% manage to stick with them. Improving physical health, finances and mental health were the most common resolutions, in keeping with the trend of self-improvement in resolutions. 

New Year, New Me

A 2014 research study validates the ubiquity of ‘aspirational behaviours’ that are motivated by ‘temporal landmarks’. We tend to feel like doing better than our current state when the calendar shows a day/date that indicates a new beginning. Such temporal landmarks can be the start of a new week, month or a birthday or the start of a new year. There are three characteristics that make these landmarks interesting. First, they signify the end of a mental accounting period. Human perception of time tends to demarcate continuity of life into multiple mental accounting periods. Temporal landmarks such as the start of new year, help in this demarcation. Secondly, because there is an ‘end’, there is a dissociation between past self and the expected future self. All past imperfections are relegated as the ‘misses’ of the previous period and planning begins for a better self assumed to be free of these imperfections. Lastly, such landmarks force us to focus on the big picture. By acting as landmarks, they promote a broader and higher level of thinking in people with respect to their life. This type of thinking increases motivation and guides our mind to set aspirations and goals. 

This explains why we make resolutions around the time of new years. However, what remains elusive is why most resolutions fail. While some explanations relate to the core neurobiology of humans, others are fundamental mistakes we make when we manifest resolutions. 

The roadblocks to successful resolutions

The Basal Ganglia (BG) and the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) are critical brain regions involved in maintaining resolutions. The brain's learning process is essential to understanding why it's challenging to stick to resolutions. Learning about the connections between situations, actions, and outcomes is crucial for goal-oriented behaviour, a process assisted by both the BG and PFC. The BG quickly learns simpler, fixed behaviours, while the PFC slowly learns more complex or long-term behaviours. Balancing these two systems is necessary for sustained goal-directed behaviour, and designing rewards or dopamine releases that motivate daily while allowing long-term learning systems to adapt is key.

Setting resolutions is a societal custom; Giving up on it is too!

Tying this to the realm of behavioural science, understanding certain principles can help avoid common mistakes in setting resolutions:

  • Optimism Bias: This is the tendency to be overly optimistic about the future, leading to resolutions that are either too ambitious or not well-planned, underestimating the challenges in changing entrenched habits.

  • Lack of Specificity and Measurability: Many resolutions fail because they are too vague. Goals like "get fit" or "save money" lack clear, measurable objectives. Without specific targets, it's difficult to gauge progress or feel a sense of achievement.

  • All-or-Nothing Mindset: Many individuals approach resolutions with an all-or-nothing mentality. This approach can lead to feelings of failure after the slightest deviation from the plan, causing people to abandon their resolutions entirely.

  • Lack of Support and Accountability: Social support and accountability play a significant role in maintaining motivation and commitment. Without a support system or a way to hold oneself accountable, it's easy to lose track of the resolutions.

Refining Resolution, Building Habits

Leveraging behavioral science, we can strategically refine our approach to resolutions. It's crucial to consider the specific context of each resolution for effective implementation. To assist in this process, the we have meticulously crafted a resolution worksheet. This tool is designed with detailed strategies and insights from habit formation, behavioral science, and psychology, aiming to bolster your journey towards personal improvement.

Setting Resolutions

1. One Goal at a Time

It is important not to overburden yourself with too many resolutions. The quickest way to fail would be to take on too many goals and end up tiring out and giving in to whatever behaviours you’re trying to change. Have one resolution.

2. Specific not Vague 

Resolutions are blanket statements about the kind of behaviour you would like to exhibit. Converting your resolutions into explicit and practical habits you’d like to have in your routine will help with adherence. The key here is rooting the habit into your routine. Taking the step of making space in your schedule for this habit will increase the likelihood of adherence. 

For example,

Bad: I will focus on my fitness in 2024

Good: I’ll go for a walk at 6:00 PM every day

Good: I will workout 4 times a week.

3. Cue it up

Additionally, reminders will help too. These reminders can be framed in a way to act like commitment devices. The basic idea behind a cue is that it should give you the indication to kick start or stop the behaviour you’re trying to change.

Example of a reminder message - ‘You committed to this fitness activity’ or ‘Review Expenses or Break a Promise’

Keeping Resolutions

4. Reward Yourself

Habits get enforced when there is a reward system in place. The habit change mechanism places high significance on setting rewards for adhering to the habits you want to inculcate. Keeping this in mind, the resolution tool we developed has a three tiered reward system. 

5. Consistency, not Perfection

Another hurdle that comes with resolutions is that the moment we fail once, we abandon the resolution in its entirety. This can be failing to enact the habit we’re trying to make on a particular day or for a stretch of time. As soon as we don’t act as we hoped we would, some self-destructive part of us tells us that we’re incapable of meaningful change. Perhaps this advice is redundant and obvious, but it is important- 

Aim for consistency not perfection. It is almost intuitive, yet, is one of the key reasons why resolutions fail. If we’re trying to change a habit or make a new one, failure is going to be a part of the process. However, persistence is how the habit will stick.

Successful resolutions are not perfect, they are consistent!
Successful resolutions are not perfect, they are consistent!

6. Social Support and Accountability

Finally, keeping resolutions becomes much easier when there is social support. This can be having a partner join you for the habit you’re trying to inculcate or even having a friend check up on your progress and hold you accountable. As social creatures, having a support system that is active helps in achieving goal terms goals. 

Resolutions are a good way to inspire self-improvement. The worksheet we developed aims to be a useful part of this journey. Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Resolution worksheet
Download PDF • 344KB

If you're confused about how this works, check out this sample filled document.

Hoping the new year gives you all the joy and growth you aspire to!!

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