The fading memory of New Year celebrations and return to our usual routines often presents a challenge to the New Year’s resolutions we promised ourselves to work on. Here Dr Ainslea Cross, Academic Lead for Health Psychology at the University of Derby Online Learning, talks about how we can apply lessons from health psychology research to keep our resolutions on track and work towards our life and health goals.
Whilst setting goals can be energising and motivating, at Derby we have been researching the downside of fixed goals. In fact, it has been shown in behavioural experiments that dwelling on thoughts about the positive aspects of having achieved our goals (e.g. picturing how great it will feel to lose weight or be fit) can be de-energising for some and they fail to take action, which means the behaviour change they want to achieve doesn’t happen.
Here’s how to avoid that trap and to keep your New Year’s resolutions on track now that we are back to the usual routines:
- Focus on process goals that can be achieved right now by identifying the steps you need to take to achieve your goals (e.g. today I will take a twenty minute walk at lunch), alongside outcome goals, which have a more long-term focus and form part of the bigger picture (e.g. I want to complete my first parkrun). Focusing on what can be achieved right now through a series of process goals is motivating and keeps us focused on the present, which potentially avoids the trap of de-energising future thought and daydreams.
- We can get derailed by short-term wants even at the cost of well-intentioned long-term goals. Reflecting on what your short-term wants tend to be (e.g. wanting to watch TV in favour of a goal to be more active) and developing some plans to counteract these or keep your goals on track will help. Research shows that plans in the form of ‘if-then’, known as implementation intentions, tend to be more effective (;). For example, if I want to watch TV then I will take a walk during each break. Our own research shows that you can boost the effectiveness of your goals through ‘mental contrasting’. As well as your goal, you should seek to identify the barrier or obstacle to achieving your success or goal.
- Aim for flexibility – resolutions should be held lightly and not as governing rules. Setbacks can be reframed and deviations viewed with self-kindness. It is important to avoid ‘all or nothing’ thinking when evaluating what you have done or not done in relation to your resolution. So, for example, missing a planned run could be reframed as a positive act of self-care for much needed rest, rather than failure.
- As well as goals, it is also important to consider your values, which are enduring, ongoing guides to living and behaviour change. Unlike with goals, you cannot achieve a value and instead you choose to act and think in accordance with values. Values are chosen qualities of being and doing, such as being a caring friend, being a loving parent, being loyal, honest, and courageous. Our values are a guide to focus efforts and energies, but also provide a new source of motivation. Whereas goals can take a long time to achieve, choosing to act or think according to our values can be achieved every day, which becomes motivating and rewarding. Taking a compassionate flexible, values-based approach to our New Years’ resolutions (e.g. to eat to nourish my body according to energy levels; be a supportive colleague or friend) means any deviations or lapses, such as eating a cake, become less threatening to the goal and we can stay on track.
All these tips help us to continually develop our psychological flexibility: the ability to take effective action, guided by values, with awareness of what’s happening now, with openness and focus. We can also develop more self-acceptance and compassion for ourselves, for all those times when things don’t go to plan, fail or we get hurt.
No matter how many times our resolutions go off track, we can use the ACT approach :
A – Accept our thoughts and feelings
C – Choose a valued direction
T – Take action mindfully, with an if-then plan.
Our current research is now focusing on values and action planning for supporting health enhancing goals.