How to keep a New Year’s Resolution: according to science

I’m not sure what’s worse, the fact that puddings and mulled wine have been replaced by salads and green tea, or the cheesy ‘new year, new me’ quotes that seem to be plastered all over Facebook.

We've all been there...
We’ve all been there…

One good thing that does come along with January is New Year’s Resolutions, but whether it’s losing weight, quitting smoking, working harder or something more imaginative, statistics say that most of us will return to our former, fat and lazy ways by February. Fed up with this yearly failure, I looked into the scientific research that has been carried out to help us keep these resolutions.

1) Don’t Stress about it:

Too much stress has been found in many studies to reduce willpower and inhibit our ability to resist temptation. Dr Amit Sood, a Professor of Medicine says this is because stress releases a cocktail of hormones, putting you into a ‘primitive survival mode’, making us impulsive, so we just grab that slice of cake or cigarette without being able to resist it.

Stress can also directly increase appetite, as it causes the release of hormones such as cortisol. Long term cortisol releases signals for your body to replenish its food supply after a stressful situation or a ‘fight’ (it’s evolutionary, our endocrine system hasn’t caught up with modern life yet), therefore stress makes you crave food, particularly high calorie food. Hormones released by stress also make us store more fat, so if your resolution involves losing weight, keeping calm and taking the pressure off will help.

stressed dessert
This isn’t just a coincidence, the more stressed we are, the more likely we are to indulge in desserts.

2) Don’t fantasize too much:

You might think that daydreaming and happy thoughts might help you achieve your goals, but a study by an NYU psychology professor found that women who fantasized more about being skinny actually lost less weight. It was found in a further study by this group that the women who had more positive fantasies had less energy; these fantasy thoughts actually sap the energy from us, so we don’t build up enough energy to do those sit ups, (or whatever it is we are trying to do).

So if we stop daydreaming constantly about a beautiful beach body, we might have a bit more success in actually achieving one.

3) When you do dream, use ‘Mental Contrasting’:

The same professor from NYU researched the idea of ‘mental contrasting’. This is a simple idea, you think about your New Year’s resolution, and then think about the obstacles in your way of reaching your goal. This is thought to work by forming associations and neuronal connections in the brain between the reward in the future and the obstacles in the way, so that the subconscious part of your brain ‘understands’ the reason for the obstacles and struggles you will face. In studies this way of thinking has improved academic scores, made people work harder, resulted in people exercising more and eating healthier and even helped people stop smoking. But be careful, for it to work you have to think of the goal then the obstacle in that order, and you need to have positive expectations of yourself keeping the resolution too.

4) Use Positive reinforcement:

Positive reinforcement means that you make an association between your resolution and an immediate positive outcome. There are endless studies on this and it remains a fundamental idea on behavioural change. For example, a common New Year’s resolution is taking up running, but once you associate it with having to get out of bed early and don’t immediately see a good effect, your mind associates running with negativity and you begin to swap your morning jog for a lie in and a scroll through twitter. But if you think about running as a privilege rather than a chore, and remember the benefits in overall health (though you may not see a physical change for a while), you will begin to form associations between running and positive feelings, making you more motivated to get up and go. This is the basic psychology behind ‘mind over matter’. Using physical rewards can work too, like ‘if I run 3 times a week  for 3 weeks I can buy myself a new handbag’, seems strange but it’s actually backed up by research. These rewards release dopamine, which encourages us to repeat the behaviour.

On The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon uses positive reinforcement by rewarding Penny's good behaviour with chocolate.  If it's good enough for Sheldon it must be legit.
On The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon uses positive reinforcement by rewarding Penny’s good behaviour with chocolate. If it’s good enough for Sheldon it must be legit.

5) Finally: If you do slip up, or completely fail, treat yourself with ‘self-compassion’

Self-compassion means not beating yourself up about failures and being mindful that we are human and all make mistakes. It sounds simple, but it has been found to work: research at the University of Texas found that those who treated themselves with self-compassion felt the same support, understanding and kindness that a friend would have showed to them, and were much more likely bounce back from their failures and get back on track with their resolutions.

So there we have it, don’t stress, don’t daydream, think of your obstacles, reward yourself and don’t throw your toys out the pram if it all goes wrong.

Till next time,




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