A New Year and a new, healthier you…? Well, at least until February…

Kate Pogson

Hands up. Who chose a new year’s resolution for 2018? Well, polling suggests about two-thirds of you. Out of those of you who did, keep your hands up if that resolution related to health.

Whether you committed to run a marathon, lose weight, stop drinking or stop smoking, it seems healthier choices dominate our resolutions.

Further polling conducted by Bupa and ComRes shows that the majority of people who said they would make a resolution would make one concerning their health. OK, last question, hands up if yours is still going strong? Hmmm – be honest… OK, same Bupa/ComRes polling shows that less than half of people will keep their resolution for a month and the second Friday in January (today!) being when most good habits will fail, which means that some of you, like me, cracked open a bottle of Villa Maria (or similar) just days into ‘dry’ January.

So how do we stop the annual futility of new year’s resolutions and what can we learn from aspects of behaviour change theory to support the consistent and sustainable adoption of healthier choices, ensuring that our commitments last well beyond when the year might still be considered ‘new’? With a glass of wine safely by my side, I thought I’d find out… Turns out, I’m not the only one who struggles.

A 2007 study from the University of Bristol found that 88 per cent of people who make New Year's resolutions fail - while the NHS reckon only ten per cent will be successful.

Art Markman from the University of Texas considers that most resolutions are futile because we don’t give ourselves enough time to prepare. Consider a habitual smoker, the issue is not identifying the problem – they know they smoke – the challenge is thinking about the aspects of their environment which trigger that behaviour… a cigarette with a cup of coffee, or, for me, a glass of wine on days ending in ‘y’… Changing your environment takes time, thought and effort.. none of which are properly planned in the hazy days between Christmas and New Year.

So if you’re reading this and haven’t yet reneged on your resolutions, firstly, well done, and secondly what can you do now to give yourself the best chance of success and a healthier 2018?

Wendy Wood and David Neal write in the Journal of Consumer Psychology that habits are behaviours that are being retrieved from memory. One reason that behaviour change is so difficult is because the environment is continually causing the behaviour to be retrieved. They consider that there are three principles that can be applied to increase the chance of resolution success:

As many habits are maintained by your environment consider re-arranging the aspects of your home or work that relate to the behaviour you want to change. A simple example is that if you find that you dive into the biscuits as soon as you get home, stop buying them. That will make it harder to indulge. As a less obvious, writes Dr Markman, if you want to watch less television, then move your sofa so that it is not so comfortable to see the TV when you are sitting on it.

Secondly, change your daily patterns in ways which disrupt your habits so that you have to think about your behaviour for a while. Change your route into work so you don’t feel tempted to light up on the way, change your regular bar (apologies to the staff at the Nell Gwynn) if you don’t want the temptation of ordering your ‘usual’. The period of having to think about what you’re doing is a perfect opportunity to add some new behaviours to the mix.

Finally, resolve to be more reasonable. ‘Losing weight’ may be welcome, but it’s also the destination not the journey. Smaller, incremental goals will support a greater sense of achievement and impetus to continue.

So as I look ahead to 1 Jan 2019, I resolve to be more prepared, more thoughtful and more specific in my resolutions and if that means purging the house of sauvignon blanc @ 00.01 on New Year’s Day, so be it…