Like many traditions, no one knows exactly when people started making New Year resolutions. If, as some claim, it dates back to Babylonian times, that proves only that self-delusion has been practised for at least 4,000 years.
For as everyone knows, most New Year resolutions confirm Homer Simpson’s rule that trying is taking the first step towards failing.
Rarely in the field of human cognition have so many started out with such high hopes and achieved so little.
A study by Prof Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, found that more than half of 3,000 people who resolved to achieve goals such as losing weight thought they would succeed by the end of the year. Fewer than one in eight actually did.
Small wonder, then, that annual polls by CBS News suggest that increasing numbers of people are not even bothering to make such resolutions.
Rather more surprising is just how little hard scientific research has been done on boosting the success rate.
For although new year resolutions might seem like a joke, their failure can have consequences that are anything but.
For many people, they are the only time that any thought is given to breaking their lifelong bad habits.
Fortunately, the scientific community is waking up to the issue, and is coming up with some concrete suggestions based on research rather than anecdotes.
Much of the research is focused on exploiting the very phenomenon that undermines so many resolutions: force of habit.
Psychologists define habits as patterns of behaviour that take place automatically, which is what gives them their power.
Once acquired, habits involve very little thought at all. If resolutions are to succeed, they must turn our conscious goals into automatic habit.
That way we’ll be able to forgo, say, cream cakes, not because of our iron self-discipline but because it never crosses the mind to eat them.
One of the leaders in the emerging field of habit formation is Dr Phillippa Lally of the Health Behaviour Research Centre at University College London.
Together with her UCL colleague Dr Benjamin Gardner, she has examined the current state of knowledge in the journal Health Psychology Review.
Although studies confirm the importance of having a clear plan rather than vague intentions, they have also shown that it is vital to have the right kind of plan.
It turns out that tying healthy practices to the time of day can be a recipe for failure – simply because people too often get caught up in work or meetings, leading to time slots being missed, and a growing sense of failure.
A better approach is to tie the new practice to routine events that one can rely on happening – such as going into or out of the office. One can then be sure of having to adopt the new practice, such as taking the stairs rather than the lift.
Plans should also have some flexibility, to allow for the inevitable lapses or change in circumstances. A resolution that calls for sticking to a calorie limit five days each week is more likely to succeed than one that demands ironclad discipline day in and day out.
What every resolution must include, however, is what researchers opaquely term “implementation intentions”. This is simply a set of if-then rules for what to do when things go wrong.
For example, your weight loss plan may call for a ban on eating cake, which works fine until a colleague brings a huge home-made cake to work to celebrate her birthday.
It would be impolite to refuse, but accepting can feel like defeat – unless you have already consciously drawn up a plan of what to do. Studies suggest that such forward planning can make an apparent setback feel like a victory.
There is, however, one huge myth about forming new habits this way, and that is how long the process takes.
Self-help books have claimed that determined, conscious effort can turn into automatic habit within a few weeks. Studies suggest that is the exception rather than the rule. According to Dr Lally’s research, the average time required is about three months.
That underlines the importance of including another element into any healthy habit-forming plan: reward.
Like plans, however, although the right type of reward boosts the odds of success, the wrong sort can be literally worse than useless.
Researchers have found that diet programmes involving exercise are routinely undermined by people rewarding themselves after a workout. The fact is that few realise just how sparingly the human body burns up calories during exercise – and how easily they can be replaced.
For example, you may well feel you have earned a reward for putting in half an hour of swimming after work. But in reality you have only burnt off about 250 calories, and you will cancel that out with just a few bites of a chocolate chip muffin.
Exactly what rewards work best is not clear; amazingly, research into this issue remains in its infancy. What is clear, however, is that rewards can become an end in themselves, blocking the creation of an automatic habit.
Studies suggest that whatever the rewards are, they should come at random during the campaign, so that one does not get to expect them.
A final tip from the research is to be realistic, as old habits are hard to break. The chances are that anyone making a resolution next Thursday would not have their new habit in place until early April.
The process is thus more of a long-distance run than a sprint. But the analogy with running goes further. Studies show there are big benefits in having constant support from others, along with independent verification of your progress. So if you are planning to lose weight, get someone else to check your weight as the weeks go by.
With more than 1.5 billion people now overweight, and the UAE being in the top five countries worldwide for obesity, there is no lack of demand for insights into how to break our bad habits.
Let us hope more scientists resolve to make this a research priority next year.
© The NationalDec 2014