Why your new year’s resolution probably won’t work

A handy guide to not blaming yourself, scientifically

We’ve all done it. In the euphoric haze caused by a combination of cheap bubbly and the adoring gaze of That Person You Want To Kiss At Midnight you said something stupid:

“My new year’s resolution is to get fit and lose weight!”

Two weeks later you’re being told by the attractive smiley person at the gym that it’s actually not as hard as you think, particularly if you pick the platinum package that comes with a snazzy bag.

Two months later you’ve been to the gym three times*, the bag is being used to store cat toys, and the only thing you’ve lost is a membership fee and the last sad remnants of your dignity.

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Time to go back to The Gym of Chocolate

What happened?

If it sounds like I’m speaking from experience, it’s because I am. The one message that I’ve learned through my personal life and in public health is that it is incredibly hard to change your lifestyle. And one thing we all forget when making resolutions is that it is all about lifestyle change. You can’t just go to the gym. You have to make time, find the money, maybe get a babysitter or work an extra shift. Maybe you can’t afford a gym so you start running twice a week.

When I made resolutions I never planned like that. I told myself I would improve, and then went about trying to do it. More often than not, I ended up feeling like shit months later when, instead of being fitter, I’d actually gained weight.

A huge amount of public health is dedicated to getting people to make healthier choices; why is it so horribly hard?

Habits are a wonderful feedback loop that makes you do the same thing again and again. You essentially train yourself to perform a certain behavior over and over through reward and repetition.

Every day, on the way to work, I sit in the same place on the train. There are some rationalizations that I’ve come up with to explain it (it’s close to the exit, but far away enough that people won’t sit next to me at 6:20am) but the main reason I sit there is because it’s the place I sat down on my first day at the job. I sat in one spot, I enjoyed the trip, and my brain said “hell yeh, let’s do this every day!”

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Yes, your brain is basically a dog begging for treats

Habits are incredibly easy to form and staggeringly hard to break. How to break habits has been a major focus of psychological research for decades. It’s not a simple exercise. One study found that after moving offices people still tried to take the same mode of transport, even when it was the less effective option. Diet and exercise in particular are some of the hardest habits to break, because they involve everything you do.

Join a gym? You’ll have to take time away from other important things, like sleep.

Cut back on carbs? You’re going to have to shop differently, maybe stay away from the aisle with the cookies, and maybe even find a new place to see your friends that doesn’t serve fries.

Not easy. Not easy at all.

So when you make a new year’s resolution, you have to break your existing habits and form new ones. This is made even harder because the existing habits are usually the easiest behaviors — which is why they were formed in the first place — and the new habits are pretty damn hard. It takes time and effort to form healthy habits, and time is the one thing many of us barely have enough of.

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I forgot: activewear. It isn’t necessary, but who wants to get fit if they can’t look the part as well?

Choice and motivation are tricky subjects. When you make a resolution, you essentially are saying “I am going to choose different behaviours!”. Sadly, it is rarely as simple as that. Your behaviour is influenced by any number of factors outside your control; getting fit is much easier if there are accessible gyms and parks nearby. Live in a low-income suburb where the parks aren’t safe? Much harder to get your weekly exercise.

Your new year’s resolution probably doesn’t take into account how complex changing your behaviour can be. If you want to lose weight, you might have to move suburbs, make new friends, maybe even get a new job. Losing weight might be simple**, but it isn’t easy.

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Pictured: simple, but not easy

Resolutions are also made worse by the fact that many of us try to go it alone. There’s decent evidence that trying to keep a new year’s resolution is much easier if there is a social factor, particularly if friends and family are involved. This is mirrored in research that has found that planning for social support in weight loss increases efficacy.

If you’ve made a new year’s resolution, you don’t have to despair. There’s a lot going against you, but there are some evidence-based tricks to keeping to your promise to yourself:

  1. Do it with friends. As I mentioned above, social support is a key factor in successfully making any long-term change in your life. If you’ve decided to improve your health or wellbeing, the place to start is to find someone to do it with you.
  2. Start with something small. Notice how all of the things I talked about seem small when you say them but are actually major life changes? Try doing something that will barely change your day, and building. Evidence shows that smaller, easier interventions will give you a better chance of success.
  3. Clearly define your goal. Setting a clear goal is an evidence-based way to help you change your life. Motivation is much easier to come by when you know exactly what you want to do. Instead of “get fit”, try “walk for 10 mins each day”. Instead of “lose weight” maybe “drink only water on weekdays”.
  4. Manipulate your habits. Pair your goal with something that you enjoy to promote good habits. Start only getting coffees after a walk/run, so that you associate the good feeling of coffee with the activity you are trying to keep up. Do it enough and it won’t even feel like a chore any more.
  5. Commit. The hardest part. Don’t stop doing it. Don’t think about the new year. Make your change part of your everyday life and it won’t even feel like you are trying to do anything at all.

It sounds easy, but it isn’t. Changing your life never is.

But making small, clearly defined goals that you can commit to and make habits will make it that much less difficult.

It did for me.

  • *Once to sign up, once to use your free personal training session, and once to stare in fear at all the fit people doing exercise before deciding you could start being fit tomorrow.
  • **Eat less, exercise more sounds great but it is never an easy thing to do.

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