Expert Opinion

Buck the trend, succeed with your resolutions

In this blog post, Jim McKenna, Professor of Physical Activity and Health at Leeds Beckett offers his thoughts on how you can succeed in your New Year’s resolutions.

The ‘buzz’ about the success of resolutions is not good. How come? After all, most of us regularly make strong changes that redirect our lives in profound ways. Behaviour change science is showing some important mistakes that any of us can fall into (or not).
As intentional behaviour change links to self-control, there are some important messages for us to learn. These stem from the process model of self-control (see below), which is helpful because it shows what’s easy to do and what’s not. Working backwards from that, it helps to show what not to do as well as what to do to get some early success. In the figure the hardest things – and the ones that most lead to failure – are shown on the right. For easier change, look to the left.
Fundamentally, this model shows that the hardest thing to change is how we interpret particular events (‘Response’). Given that setbacks will be inevitable in a change attempt, harshly judging ourselves for what we haven’t done is a majorfaux pas. Connected to this is how we can easily conflate ‘bad’ behaviour with a personal moral shortcoming. Stop using all that ‘beat yourself up’ self-talk (self-talk is the fancy name for all those conversations you have with yourself that no-one else can hear). Recognise that as a big and powerful mistake; learn from that and take a different tack.

For me, the most important positive message to draw from the chart is linked to the arched arrow. That shows the importance of swapping attention (yes, do it as an intentional act) to focus on your living spaces (Situation; Selection and Modification). Spend more time in spaces and places that offer little or no temptation for what we are trying to avoid. This works for two reasons. First, the people and events that tempt you into what you don’t want aren’t testing your will-power and that’s a limited resource. Second, you are creating the space needed to work on your new behaviour. Perhaps ironically, knowing to change what surrounds you is one of the best ways to impose your will. Even strong-willed people need to do this.

Situation modification might involve surrounding yourself with reminders of what you want to do. This works powerfully because we are ‘hard-wired’ to check out living spaces for potential threats; what we see in those spaces acts to trigger or prompt subsequent behaviour. If knitting is on your agenda, put your needles around the house, if you are focused on eating more fruit, put the fruit you like in more places where you go during the day.
Having no positive reminders of previous success is another major reason for failing on resolutions. Humans thrive on dopamine, which is the brain chemical linked not only with reward for doing something but also for creating the ‘want’ to do it again. That’s why it is powerful to record your successes; any success. For that reasons, start any change proves with small issues and stick with those until they become second-nature to you.
Recording success produces small squirts of dopamine in your brain and this amplifies the squirts you also received for doing the new behaviour. That’s important. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld was recently asked how he makes almost $200m/year through writing jokes for others. Describing how he puts a large ‘X’ on his calendar every day he writes for others, he commented ‘After a few days you’ll have a chain. Your only job is to not break the chain’.
Stop beating yourself up, build supportive environments and make them work for you.
Professor Jim McKenna

Professor James McKenna

Professor of Sport / Carnegie School Of Sport

A professor of Physical Activity and Health, Jim studies behaviour change at a range of levels; individual, social and whole community. He is Director of the Active Lifestyles research centre in the School of Sport.