A Health Psychologist looks at New Year’s Resolutions

Dr. Francis Quinn, Lecturer in Psychology, School of Applied Social Studies, looks at the psychology of our New Year resolutions


As humans, we like to divide our lives into “chapters” – manageable chunks such as years or decades. Approaching the end of a decade of life (e.g. age 29, 49, 59 etc.) research suggests we’re more likely to reflect on our lives and make changes (1, 2). But it’s often the same as we approach the end of a year. A new year can be a new birth of opportunity for change. But most New Year’s resolutions fail. Why?


Most involve changing our behaviours, and to succeed it helps to understand what determines our actions. Without being aware of these mental factors, we’re more likely to be knocked off the wagon by something we didn’t see coming. Health psychologists often study and work with behaviour change, and it’s not easy, nor simple. There’s no “silver bullet”. But a century of research has provided some understanding of the many factors that determine our actions, and how we can change. In this post, I wanted to share a few tips from health psychology.


  • Change one thing. Making a change involves overriding a frequent, well-established, automatic/habitual act (e.g. sitting on the sofa) and consciously replacing it with another. This takes motivation and willpower, and the latter is a limited resource. If you spread yourself too thin, you probably won’t have the resources to stick with it. It’s much harder to win a war on two fronts.
  • Set a SMART goal. That specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and has a timeframe by which you can measure progress. These goals are more likely to be achieved.
  • Plan to make the change. You need to marshal your resources. Have you secured the opportunities you need to change, such as facilities, foods, money, time, etc.? Do you need to learn new skills or abilities, such as cookery? How exactly will you make the change (when, where, how)?
  • Monitor your progress. By keeping a chart or record, we can measure our progress to keep ourselves on track, keeping the goal at forefront of our mind. It helps to pin it up, or use a smartphone app.
  • Plan how to cope with obstacles. Research has shown that planning ahead of time how to overcome inevitable challenges (e.g. offered tempting food by others, can’t make it to exercise etc.) helps maintain the change (3). You’re not caught off-guard and unprepared when things come up.
  • Make it a habit. Having done something often in the same situation, it becomes automatic and triggered by that situation (i.e. a habit). Most of our current behaviours are habits, cued by our situation or our feelings that we may not be aware of. To start making the change, you have to act consciously, which is effortful. But over time, the new normal takes less effort.
  • Accept that change happens slowly. Change is a process, not an event. Sudden change is rarely seen in psychology. It took years to create the automatic habits that drive your current behaviour; it will take at least a few weeks (quite possibly longer!) to settle in to new ways of acting. While you restructure your habits, one or two lapses don’t mean failure (if you keep them limited!). Often we need to make a few attempts before we succeed consistently.
  • Get support. By working with a professional, you commit yourself to change and also receive support and assistance. This could be by working with a personal trainer or exercise class, dietician, or getting support from NHS stop-smoking services, etc.
  • Learn about what causes human behaviour. Knowledge is power. The RGU University Library provides a wide range of books and e-books on health psychology, sport and exercise psychology, etc.


As humans, we are always a work in progress, changing and developing throughout adulthood. Life is about becoming and not just being, and is not fixed or static – at least not when at its best. Change is a part of life, but if you want to drive a part of that change in a direction of your choice, it helps to know how and to keep your eyes on the road.



Further Reading


American Psychological Association (n.d.). Making Your New Year’s Resolution Stick. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/resolution.aspx


Cherry, K. (n.d.). About.com Psychology: How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions. Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/psychologytopics/tp/keep-your-new-years-resolutions.htm


Williams, R. B. (2010, December 27). Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail [blog post]. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201012/why-new-years-resolutions-fail






  1. Alter, A. L. & Hershfield, H. E. (2014). People search for meaning when they approach a new decade in chronological age. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Advance online publication. Available from http://www.pnas.org/content/111/48/17066.abstract


  1. Jarrett, C. (2014, November 17). Why you’re particularly likely to run your first marathon when your age ends in a “9” [blog post]. BPS Research Digest. Retrieved from http://digest.bps.org.uk/2014/11/why-youre-particularly-likely-to-run.html


  1. Sniehotta, F. F., Scholz, U. & Schwarzer R. (2006). Action plans and coping plans for physical exercise: A longitudinal intervention study in cardiac rehabilitation. British Journal of Health Psychology, 11 (1), 23-37.





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