New Year’s resolutions: How do you make one you will keep?

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New Year's resolutions: How do you make one you will keep?


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Lose weight, exercise more, quit smoking, learn a language – we can all reel off a list of typical resolutions made and broken.

But BBC Reality Check wanted to know if there are certain resolutions you’re more likely to keep?

Well, we can’t tell you what resolutions you should make, but we can draw on research to find some clues as to how you should carry them out.

There is evidence that humans are driven by “loss aversion” – that is, we are more motivated to recover loss than we are to win gains.

Framing a resolution as recovering something lost – whether that’s an old hobby or a former level of fitness – may be more effective than looking to gain an ability or appearance, for example.

This also feeds into another key piece of advice when it comes to successful resolutions – they must be realistic.

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Involve other people

Dr John Michael, a philosopher at Warwick University, studies the social factors involved in making and keeping commitments.

He says that we are more likely to keep resolutions if we can see them as being somehow important to other people – that “other people’s wellbeing is at stake” if we fail.

That might mean committing to attend a class with a friend. The effect could be even stronger if you have to pay in advance – once we feel someone has invested time and money in something, we are more likely to see through our commitments.

Dr Michael is currently testing the theory that we are more motivated to prevent loss to other people than to ourselves.

Early evidence from this work suggests that people may be more motivated to continue a boring or difficult task when somebody else has invested effort in it.

Specific cues

Reputation is also a powerful motivator. Making your resolutions public can help you to keep them since the fear that people will think worse of you if you don’t see them through will add to your resolve.

“We don’t want to get a reputation as unreliable, so publicly announcing our plans can be motivating. Betting can be still more motivating,” says Prof Neil Levy at the University of Oxford.

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Willpower alone is not enough

Making detailed resolutions is important, he adds.

Saying, “I’ll go to the gym on Tuesday afternoons and Saturday mornings” is more likely to be successful than simply saying “I’ll go to the gym more”, according to Prof Levy.

He also recommends tying your intentions to specific cues, a practice he calls “implementation intentions”.

If you want to learn a language, you might first resolve to listen to a language-learning podcast on your commute each morning.

Then, to improve your chances of success further, you could make sure you stick a note to the steering wheel of your car each night to remind you to play it on your journey in the morning, for example.

You’re not just making a intention but also setting out steps to implement it.

Making exceptions

He also warns of the potential for “decisions to become precedents”.

“Implicitly we recognise that there are exceptions (I won’t go to the gym if the house is on fire). But we can exploit this to our detriment by expanding the exceptional circumstances.

“My birthday may be a legitimate exception which comes once a year. But if I start recognising as exceptional things that occur more often – it’s the last week of the month, better to start on the first; or it’s too cold to get out of bed so early – then everything tends to become an exception,” Prof Levy says.

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Make your resolutions part of your longer-term plans

Make them part of your longer-term plans

For Dr Anne Swinbourne, a behavioural psychologist at James Cook University, Australia, the best resolutions are the ones that achieve a chunk of a longer-term plan you have for yourself, rather than those that are vague and aspirational.

If you’ve never shown an interest in sport, resolving to become a brilliant athlete is unlikely to stick – resolving to save money because you’ve always dreamed of travelling the world before you turn 50 might be more successful.

And keeping them is all about planning, she says.

Work out what your triggers are, both to negative behaviour you want to discourage and positive behaviour you want to encourage – if you want to drink less, plan to meet friends for coffee not in a pub.

“People who rely on willpower mostly fail,” according to Dr Swinbourne.

“To keep a resolution, you have to be boringly meticulous – you have to plan.”


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