Your guide to making New Year’s resolutions that will stick

Posted by
Abi Jackson

Fed up with your New Year’s resolutions always failing? These positive psychology techniques could help you make authentic goals you actually stick to  

New Year’s resolutions are funny things. We set them in a blaze of optimism, determined to turn ourselves into happier, healthier, shinier, more brilliant humans - yet so often they end up making us feel worse, when those hopeful lists become screwed up balls of failure destined for the bin.

Sound familiar? It’s often cited that around 80% of New Year’s resolutions are abandoned within a matter of weeks or months – but it doesn’t have to be that way.

We quizzed some of our favourite optimistic thinkers about using positive psychology to help make New Year’s resolutions you’ll actually stick to. Read on to hear their tips and tricks for making resolutions that will last…

Are you setting the right goals?

If you want your goals to stick, they need to be objectives you truly care about. It sounds obvious, but it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of setting the same old clichéd resolutions. A Bupa poll confirmed ‘exercise more’, ‘lose weight’, and ‘eat more healthily’ as the top three resolutions for 2015, while the same themes ruled when Twitter revealed the most talked-about New Year goals back in January 2017. But has mindlessly jumping on the bandwagon ever been the route to fulfilment?

“It’s really important from the outset to be honest with yourself. Do I really want this? Do I really want to give up this thing, or am I doing it because it’s expected? Because if you are, then it’s almost certainly designed to fail,” Hilda Burke, integrative psychotherapist, couples counsellor and life coach, tells “I think almost 90% of the work is choosing those goals that you really feel strongly about.”

So how do you make sure you pick the right goals? Chartered psychologist and health coach Suzy Reading, whose book The Self-Care Revolution is out on 28 December, says we should opt for “intrinsic” goals that are “personally rewarding and inspiring”, as opposed to “extrinsic” goals that “reflect what other people want from you”. These intrinsic goals are also “authentic”, meaning they are “rooted in your own deeply held values, interests and beliefs”. So take some time to consider whether you’re setting goals you really want, or just ticking boxes for the sake of it.     

Use positive rewards for motivation  

Workplace wellbeing was a huge topic in 2017. A recent survey by Emolument found that 57% of women feel their heavy workload had made them physically ill, while 43% also felt their boss had invaded their personal time. In addition, HSE figures show that 11.7 million work days were lost due to stress, anxiety and depression over the last 12 months.

So, let’s say your goal is to get on top of your work-life balance. Tackling tricky conversations with an over-demanding boss can be daunting (and if things are really bad, it might be a good idea to speak to your GP or HR department for extra support), but putting the focus on the positive outcomes of having that chat and setting some healthier boundaries can be really useful.

This is about using ‘Approach’ rather than ‘Avoid’ techniques, explains Suzy. For example: “Frame your goals positively so that they involve ‘becoming’ or approaching a desirable outcome, rather than avoiding an undesirable outcome. Rather than cut down on TV, set the goal to read or get out in nature more often.

“The reason this works is because these goals serve to prime the brain. Avoidance goals literally prime the brain for what you don’t want (ie. ‘eat less chocolate’ makes you think about chocolate, thus feeding the desire), while approach goals prime the choices that you do want to make. Framing your goals positively makes a difference to your thinking, energy, motivation and self-esteem.”

Positive rewards also trigger dopamine hits in the brain, which lead us to feel more optimistic, and numerous studies have found reward systems to have greater impact than punishments when it comes to encouraging behavioural change. It’s a strategy often used by therapists and life coaches, says Hilda: “The thing about giving up something is that it smacks of scarcity. The very idea can make us feel quite anxious, and can lead us to think, ‘Well if I’m giving this up, then I’m going to have to binge on it first’, which isn’t healthy. When I work with clients, I try to focus less on what they’re giving up and more on what they’re going to get from doing so.”

Break it down into realistic steps 

If you set targets that feel impossible, they probably will be. Remember: this is life, not a race for some imaginary finish line, so take your time and enjoy it. Hilda notes that throwing yourself into an ambitious regime in January can be a positive thing, as long as you’re prepared to reassess down the line if necessary, and tweak your regime so it fits with your overall lifestyle and resources.

Beware of falling into the ‘willpower gap’ too. “Willpower alone is never enough. The part of our brain responsible for willpower is simply not equipped to cope with the number of decisions we face in modern life, nor the intensity of temptation we are now constantly subjected to,” says Suzy. Having authentic, intrinsic goals will help, but so too will a bit of planning, and possibly avoiding situations that are going to ‘test’ your willpower for a while.

“We need to dial down the volume on temptation and reduce the number of decisions we’re faced with in our day-to-day lives,” says Suzy. “Get organised, plan your time, map out your choices and come up with your ‘primer statement’ to help you make more life-giving choices more often. For example, ‘If I am feeling tired, THEN I will schedule an early night’. Writing out your ‘primer statements’ will help you make that choice more often.”

Banish the ‘inner critic’ 

Those super-high standards you set yourself? That time you spend analysing those so-called ‘flaws’? This cycle of negative self-talk usually only results in dampened self-worth.

“The ‘inner critic’ seldom cultivates better performance,” says Suzy. “Tune in with your ‘inner cheerleader’ (what would your friends say to you, or what would you say to a friend who has just achieved this mini milestone?) and your ‘inner elder’ – your future grey-haired self who is just waiting to offer a kind word of encouragement. The aim with self-talk is to only talk to yourself as you would your best friend.”

While we’re at it, stop any ‘failure’ talk too. Goals don’t have to be all-or-nothing – it’s up to you to decide whether something is worthwhile, even if you don’t manage to totally nail it 100% of the time.

“It’s crucial to get back on the horse if you’ve fallen off. Habits take so long to form and even with the best intentions, you might lapse,” says Hilda. “But learn from that. A lot of people think, ‘Ah, I’ve broken it now, what’s the point?’ But there is a lot of point!”

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