The Science Behind New Year’s Resolutions

Proper Planning and Being Realistic Are Key to Following Through

Weight loss is among the most popular New Year’s resolutions every year. Photo Kelsey Litwin

Every year, millions of people around the world set New Year’ resolutions.

Whether the goal is to lose weight, save money or quit smoking, there is often a strong belief that this year will be the year.

Unfortunately, more often than not, they fail.

A study performed in 2013 at the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania indicated that less than ten per cent of people succeed at fulfilling their resolutions.

According to Statistic Brain Research Institute, 41 per cent of Americans have set New Year’s resolutions as of Jan. 1, 2017. Just over a week into the year, it’s too early to know how many people will actually turn their resolutions into reality.

Unlike other goals set throughout the year, New Year’s resolutions carry an element of tradition. Historically, the Babylonians and the Romans would make promises to their respective gods.

Today’s most popular resolutions are not typically associated with the same sense of tradition. Nonetheless, because resolutions are performed annually and in timely fashion, they tend to carry more weight and tend to be seen as important since everyone does it, according to Richard Koestner, a human motivation professor and psychologist from McGill University.

Despite the cultural importance, many fail to stick with it.

Setting the Specifics

Science has helped demystify these troubling results. Research has shown that the majority of individuals fail to set precise goals and a specific plan of action needed to accomplish them.

“Just having a goal without specific plans won’t get you very far,” said Koestner.

The psychologist has researched goal-setting, self-regulation and internalization processes for more than two decades. He said that individuals who want to accomplish their New Year’s resolutions need to apply an “implementation plan.”

This two-step plan involves determining a precise goal and the specific steps which identify the when, where, and how that will allow the individual to perform said goal automatically and unconsciously.

You Do You

He also found that individuals often choose resolutions that are not representative of their true personal desires.

“Just having a goal without specific plans won’t get you very far.” – Dr. Richard Koestner

In an outline Koestner prepared for one of his courses, he wrote, “Many of the resolutions we set are actually things we feel others want us to do, or things we feel guilty about not having done.”

Even when individuals determined a specific goal and course of action, Koestner found that the likelihood for failure remained high because of our limited self-regulatory strength.

In other words, it is difficult to break old habits and replace them with new ones because people do not have enough “sustained energy” to exert self-control.

Good Things Take Time

It does not help that we often want to see instantaneous change. This is often the case with those who wish to lose weight at the start of the new year. According to Statistic Brain, over 21 per cent of people have set this as their main goal to achieve in 2017.

“A lot of them say, ‘Within three months, I want to have lost X amount of weight,’” said Thierry Gerville, an Energie-Cardio head trainer. “Their goals aren’t realistic and [the trainers] have to tell them and motivate them as much as we can.”

Gerville explains that on average, a person can lose up to five pounds per week but gain back around two to three pounds in water weight. In the end, it is more likely that he or she will lose those five pounds total over a month, and not seven days.

Despite these grim results, there is still hope for the 90 per cent of individuals who can’t seem to stick with it.

Since failure, however, remains an important part in achieving one’s personal objectives, whether they are New Year’s resolutions or other types of goals.

“It takes an average of seven attempts before someone succeeds,” Gerville said over the phone.

Koestner argues that using the two-step implementation plan while understanding and accepting that individuals have a limited capacity for self-control can help individuals move forward. In doing so, they will be able to choose goals that are intrinsically significant and plan them out carefully.

Turning this theory into a reality might not be as far-fetched after all. Just understand that your excess belly fat might not be gone in a day.

“You just have to have realistic goals,” said Gerville. “You’ve got to be prepared to be disappointed at first, but you know, put in the effort.”