Many of us make New Year’s resolutions, but very few people manage to see them through to their fruition. Only 9.2% felt that they succeeded in fulfilling their resolutions in 2017, with one third of resolutions for the new year having already fallen through by mid January. 

While these statistics may seem damning, there are clear reasons as to why we struggle to reach our goals. Setting unrealistic targets for ourselves plays a huge role; rather than working towards our aims incrementally over the course of the year, we often fall into the trap of extremity - suddenly giving something up altogether, for example, rather than phasing out a habit or a lifestyle choice little by little. This is rarely successful, as the sudden shift is too excessive, resulting in resolutions being abandoned. 

As such, we set out to explore more manageable (and successful) approaches to New Year’s resolutions, and sought the input of Dr Art Markman, Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, along with’s Clinical Lead Dr Daniel Atkinson.

Why does going ‘cold turkey’ rarely work?

Taking a ‘cold turkey’ stance to quitting or changing habits is the most popular tactic used by people, and on the face of it there is some logic in pursuing this. By suddenly cutting something out completely, you may feel that you can remove yourself entirely not only from that specific behaviour, but a lot of the trappings that come up with it too; the people who you share that habit with, or the environment in which your habit plays out, for instance.    

Unfortunately, the reality is that most attempts to succeed this way end in failure. If you’ve developed a dependency on what you’re looking to give up (on alcohol or smoking for example), the effects of absolute, immediate withdrawal can be extremely pronounced, difficult to endure, and dangerous to your health. They can be both physical or psychological in nature, from hand tremors, sweating and nausea to experiencing hallucinations, insomnia or depression. Some people may even have fits or seizures, which constitute a medical emergency. 

‘Going cold turkey can have significant health consequences, notes Dr Atkinson. 

‘Heavy drinkers who suddenly cut out all alcohol are especially prone to seizures, and should reduce their intake slowly to reduce the chances of this happening.’

Besides withdrawal, suddenly going ‘cold turkey’ can be especially difficult if you haven’t got a structured routine and support network in place to prevent you from relapsing. In the absence of activities that help to replace whatever it is you’re looking to relinquish or change, or without input from family and friends, it’s very easy to return to your former habits. 

The sheer amount of emphasis that we place on stopping ourselves from doing something can be very obstructive, as we then expend a lot of time focusing intently on avoidance behaviour, which can set us up for failure. As Dr Markman observes:

When people focus on things like quitting smoking, eating less, or checking email less often, they put themselves in a situation in which they are focusing on stopping something.

‘Instead, people need to focus on developing new behaviour patterns. That means focusing attempts at behaviour change on new actions to be performed rather than on old actions to be avoided.’

Having established new patterns of behaviour, it’s important to try to be patient with them. You may not see tangible results overnight, but if you give yourself the time to fully adjust to your new actions, it’s less likely that you’ll renege on your new habits and abandon your resolutions altogether. 

What’s the best way to approach New Year’s resolutions, then?

A much less pressured way to tackle resolutions is to set yourself goals that you can meet over a broader period of time, bit by bit. In a Bupa study of 2,000 British people, approximately one in five felt that their goals were overly ambitious. Of this population, 52% also said that breaking their resolutions down into smaller, more manageable pieces would help them to stick to their targets.  

Let’s say your resolution is to exercise more. Rather than giving yourself a really strict and intensive regime from the off, build up the intensity slowly over a number of months. Not only does this make the likelihood of fulfilling your targets a lot more achievable and less daunting, it’s far better for your health too. Research shows that we’re considerably more prone to burnout, and to injury, through exercising too vigorously, too quickly.

‘Overexertion through exercise is a prime example of the detrimental effects of pushing yourself too hard, too soon,’ Dr Atkinson points out.

If your workout is too intense, it takes the body longer to heal and recover, and so it can have negative repercussions on the immune system. This may lead to us becoming more prone to illness and infection.’

Breaking our goals down into smaller chunks, and giving ourselves realistic, flexible timescales in which to achieve them, also makes both the prospect and the act of confronting resolutions far less stressful. We can fine-tune our aims more easily having made them more digestible. 

Having broken our aims down into smaller pieces, we are then able to identify how we’re going to tackle them specifically, and therefore make them more measurable. In other words - create an action plan.

Through structuring how we tackle resolutions, we can then start to think about how to meet our objectives in very precise ways, and how to embed them properly into our daily lives.

‘Real change has to be focused on planning new actions. Many avoid this planning and make purchases that relate to their desired change instead,’ notes Dr Markman.

‘For example, they sign up for an expensive gym membership or buy a piece of exercise equipment, rather than thinking through carefully how an exercise program will fit into their lives.’

If we take losing weight as an example. Asking yourself the following questions may help to lay the foundations for your action plan:

  • What steps do I need to take to lose weight?
  • Is there a support group that I could join to help me lose weight?
  • Would input from a nutritionist or a fitness coach be useful in terms of mapping out a dietary regime or an exercise programme to help me reach my goals?

It’s important to refrain from overloading yourself with too many resolutions and targets at once; it’s far more difficult to meet multiple criteria for multiple goals simultaneously than it is to work towards fulfilling single objectives. Stick to one resolution at a time and focus on each component of your action plan step by step. 

Should you find that you encounter any obstacles with your action plan, be kind to yourself: 

  • If something in your action plan has gone awry, why do you think it’s happened? 
  • What could you do differently to overcome this barrier? 
  • Are there components in your action plan that you could get rid of or adapt to make achieving your goals easier? 
  • Is there scope for greater flexibility with the timescales you’re giving yourself to achieve your aims?

Identifying and breaking down any setbacks in such a way allows us to show ourselves compassion, and is much more constructive than beating ourselves up for finding the process more difficult than we perhaps had anticipated.

‘If you experience a setback or relapse with your resolutions, you musn’t look upon it, or yourself for that matter, as a failure,’ advises Dr Atkinson.

‘Treat it instead as an opportunity to learn from what went wrong.’

When you’re working through your action plan, regardless of what resolutions and goals you’re looking to fulfil, try to ensure that you’re getting enough sleep, exercise and eating a well-balanced diet.

When we’re sleeping sufficiently, exercising regularly and maintaining a well-rounded diet, our ability to focus and concentrate in general improves considerably,’ says Dr Atkinson.

‘Our motivation levels also increase as a result. 

‘It follows then that, if we’re well rested and energised, we’ll be in a much stronger position to take positive action in the face of New Year’s resolutions.’