How to make the best New Year resolutions

New Year resolutions are the ideal opportunity for personal reinvention. Whether they concern things to give up (like an addiction) or acquiring new habits. The end of a calendar year can be a significant milestone in how we mark the passing of time. It can be experienced as a major ending but also a time when we embrace the potential beginnings of a new chapter. 


What can research tell us about how to make the most effective resolution?

Research seems to suggest that so-called ‘approach goals’ are more effective when seeking to make sustainable change in your life and reducing stress.

Stress can be seen as the body's reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure. Bad stress can trigger emotional dysregulation with addictive behaviours as a self-soothing coping mechanism. Good stress can help us find solutions to problems in our lives and can motivate us to make positive behavioural changes by creating the best New Year resolutions. 

Researchers of a study from Stockholm University show that forming a new good habit can help people quit an old bad one by replacing it. The study found that those that phrased their promise with 'I will start...' were 12% more likely to stick to their target for 12 months compared to people saying 'I will quit...'

Over a thousand people participated in their study with resolutions made at the end of the year and the participants had set themselves either avoidance goals or so-called 'approach goals'. The results demonstrated that less than half (47%) of those who said they would either quit or avoid something was successful by the end of the year. Contrastingly, 59% of people who had made an 'approach goal' enjoyed greater success.  

Woman leaping with umbrella on yellow background The commentary from the study authors pointed out that in many cases it was more beneficial to rephrase your resolution. For example, you would be more successful if in seeking to meet your goal of stopping eating chocolate in order to lose weight, you said to yourself that you will eat fruit several times a day instead. In this example, you are effectively replacing chocolate with a healthier alternative, which will mean that you lose weight but also keep your resolution.

When it comes to resolutions it is difficult to erase an ingrained behaviour, but it can be easier to replace the behaviour with positive reinforcing alternatives.

This research finding could be useful in thinking about how to make positive changes in your life. Think about a new behaviour that you would like to start rather than an addiction you would like to quit. The best New Year resolution could be the one that sees new positive behaviour that cancels out the troubling habit. 

SMART goals 

When planning to produce a list of New Year resolutions it can be helpful to think of the twin goals of a) making them and b) of keeping them. We can very easily activate our inner critic by breaking resolutions, but it can prove more transformational to make resolutions that are actionable and achievable. Otherwise, it's almost like setting yourself up to fall short. Your goals will be positive and life-changing if they are clear and achievable.

Try to make each one conform to the following criteria:

  • Specific: try to ensure that each resolution is simple, sensible, significant.
  • Measurable: seek to make each resolution meaningful and motivating.
  • Achievable: make it your intention that each resolution is agreed and attainable.
  • Relevant: your resolution should be results-based, and make each one reasonable, realistic and resourced.
  • Time-bound: time-based, time-limited, time/cost limited, timely, time-sensitive.

Counselling and psychotherapy can be a process to help you to manifest the qualities necessary in order to make better decisions as well as offering an opportunity to explore your fears about getting things wrong. Behavioural change is often far more effective with daily promises, not yearly resolutions. For positive change to occur, you perhaps need to be very motivated, have a robust social support structure, and have the most appropriate supporting environment.

The reality is that the creation of new habits takes a lot of time and energy whilst you tackle the stress in your life. Previous studies have shown that it takes an average of 66 days to break bad habits or to create new ones. Introducing a change of environment can help to increase your success, but ultimately it takes about two months of sheer determination until new behaviour becomes part of an established routine. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SE1 & SE26
Written by Noel Bell, MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP
London SE1 & SE26

Noel Bell is a UKCP accredited clinical psychotherapist in London who has spent over 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel is an integrative therapist and draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the Psychodynamic, CBT, Humanist, Existential and Transpersonal schools.

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