New Year’s Resolutions – why we make them and how to keep them

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By PIp Murphy

December 29, 2020

It’s often at this time of year that we start to think about the year ahead, what new resolutions we will commit to for the next 12 months. With the routines and the daily structure of life as we knew them, turned upside down in 2020, many of us have changed our habits – some for the better and some for the worse. It feels like the term ‘COVID Kilos’ is being used pretty commonly now days! Some of you may be thinking about creating a healthier, more productive 2021 BUT the research tells us that only about 20% of individuals keep their New Year’s resolutions. Most are abandoned by mid-January!

So what can you do?

Here are three things that may help you stay true your 2021 resolutions:

1. Know that willpower while helpful to get you started is a diminishing resource. There is a pervasive belief that if we ‘just do it’ and hold our self-control and exert our willpower it will be enough. The research tells us that success comes from forming new daily habits that are achievable and repeating them over and over so that eventually your brain chooses the new behaviour without thinking. Sort of like creating a new route to get to work in the morning – the first time you really have to concentrate but after a while you don’t have to think at all. So, forgive yourself if your resolve weakens overtime! It happens to everyone.


2. There has been some wonderful work done by Professor Katy Milkman from Wharton on the power of ‘temporal’ landmarks like New Years. She calls it the ‘Fresh Start Effect’. While Jan 1st is just another day, our minds don’t see it like that. Special days like this feel different, we give them power because of the way we perceive time in episodes or categories. It’s almost as though we see life in chapters. The Fresh Start Effect research shows that people are more likely to tackle their goals around temporal days, those that stand out from the average ones. Psychologically significant markers like birthdays, the start of a season, month or even the start of the week are such days. They provide a type of clean slate for our minds – a moment to separate your ‘new self’ from your ‘old self’.

This idea is connected to a theory proposed by 2017 Nobel Prize Winner, Richard Thaler called Mental Accounting. I was lucky enough to do Thalers decision making course at the University of Chicago and it’s fascinating how we love to compartmentalize and label resources like time and money as though they are in different buckets. Sometimes to our detriment. For many of us 2021 is new start, it will allow us to put the tough year we’ve had behind us. This significant moment in time may help us to have the resolve we need to maintain our New Years Resolutions. Katy Milkman hosts a wonderful podcast called Choiceology. It is one of the most fascinating sets of stories about the common, sometimes irrational ways we make decisions I know of. Understanding how these often invisible tendencies play out in our lives can be very powerful! She dedicated a whole episode to the ‘Fresh Start Effect’ which I highly recommend, you can find it here:


3. Our brains love to conserve energy wherever possible, so they create automatic habits quickly and they are hard to shake. The way to successfully create new habits is to do the following two things:

  • Identify the cues (time of day/week, place, person) that trigger you to behave a certain way and disrupt them ie change your context to create some friction – even remove the cue. For example, don’t walk past the coffee shop, get rid of the junk food in your fridge or the phone next to your bed.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat and give yourself positive mental compliments everytime you do the desired behaviour – overtime your brain will associate positive feelings (this is when dopamine is released!) with the new behaviour and it will become locked in as a ‘habit loop’. Once this happens you won’t have to evoke your willpower anymore!


So as many of us, including me, are thanking our respective gods that 2020 is coming to an end, it’s time to think through what we want to make of 2021. With New Year on our doorstep, I’m going to reflect on some new habits I’d like to make automatic next year, what about you?