The Psychology Behind Making (and Breaking) New Year’s Resolutions
Written by Dr Kate Potter for Doctify
Making new year’s resolutions is easy. Keeping them is another matter. The idea that the clock strikes midnight on 31st December and we all wake up as brand new people on 1st January is not only silly but can also be harmful when we fail to live up to it.
So, why do we put ourselves under all this pressure? And is there any way to keep resolutions in a healthy way? Doctify Psychologist Dr Kate Potter explains the thinking behind making long term life changes.
Why do we make new year’s resolutions to begin with?
As human beings, our desire for growth is critical to our overall sense of wellbeing and fulfilment. This could at least in part explain why we tend to continue to make common new year’s resolutions such as, to wake up earlier, or go to the gym, in the full knowledge that we are likely to break these within the month.
And why do we often break them so quickly?
We can consciously make the decision to make lasting changes to our lives for the better. However, if our subconscious is not on board, we will almost certainly fall at the first hurdle.
It has been touted by many cognitive neuroscientists that our subconscious dictates our emotions, decision making and behaviour at least 95% of the time. This means that the vast majority of our choices and actions are out of our conscious awareness, leaving us vulnerable to self-sabotage and self-defeating behaviours.
You can think of your subconscious as the more primitive part of your brain, primarily run by emotions. Consultant Psychiatrist Steve Peters calls it the ‘chimp’ and explains that willpower alone will never get your chimp onside.
For instance, he explains that if you consciously decide to make running a daily part of your morning routine, you need to get to know how your chimp will feel about this. At first your chimp may feel excited to go along with this resolution as it feels enthused by the feeling of being fit.
However, when the time comes and it is raining and cold outside, the chimp may throw a tantrum and decide that it feels happier and safer under the warm duvet.
How can we make lasting changes to our lives?
We can see from this that relying on our enthusiasm and drive to keep a habit going is not enough.
Professor Steve Peters recommends that to overcome this you need to remind yourself why you are committed to change rather than relying on the fickleness of your motivation to pull you through.
Other ways to increase your chances of lasting change include:
- Having clear visual reminders of the benefits of your resolutions
- Asking others to commit to certain changes with you so you can hold each other accountable
- Starting with small, consistent behaviour changes at first so as not to overwhelm your chimp!
Most importantly, avoid beating yourself up for not perfectly sticking to your resolutions. A critical mind causes stress in the body and will lead to further unhealthy behaviours. Instead, start each day afresh, learn from what did not work before and acknowledge the progress you have made so far.
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