How to make your New Year resolutions stick like glue – join our live online event!

10 December 2015 - Sarah O’Farrell, social-cognitive psychologist and behavioural scientist, blogs about making New Year resolution plans that really work.

‘New year, new you!’ – such an inspiring phrase. And one that motivates us to really examine our lives and think about the ways in which we want ourselves and our families to be happier and healthier.

An infographic showing some statistics about New Year resolutions

But here’s where I want to let you in on a secret. While it’s true that most people don’t stick to their resolutions, it isn’t because some of us have less willpower or less ability to change. Rather, it’s because many of us have never been taught how to change our behaviours. And that’s where I can help.

There’s a whole science of behaviour change that up until now has been studied mainly by academics and advertisers. But it’s rapidly growing in popularity with the general public as well as healthcare professionals.

There’s so much that behavioural science can teach us about how to:

  • keep our motivational levels high while pursuing our goals
  • maximise our willpower
  • develop healthy habits that will really stick
  • design our physical environments in ways that will make us healthier, happier and on track to achieving our ambitions

We’re holding a live webinar (think Ted-talk style) on Thursday 14 January. I’ll be sharing lots of tips and insights to help you stick to your resolution and not give up by the end of the month! After the webinar, we’ll be posting a blog each week for the next four weeks. Each will focus on a different strategy for behaviour change that you can use to keep you on track to your goals. 

You can sign up free here!

We’ll be covering the theory behind the practice, and giving you unique insights and top tips about how to make the permanent lifestyle changes you want. Here’s a teaser to pique your interest...

1. Behaviour change 101 – develop the habit of starting 

The key to successful behaviour change is to start small. Really small! When we want to make lasting positive change, we need to begin with ‘tiny’, not ‘terrifying’.

You see, starting something is phenomenally more difficult than continuing it. The first push-up, the first step running, the first minute of meditation – getting to that first action requires the lion’s share of our mental energy. Keeping going requires far, far less because ‘we’re at it anyway’ and we have momentum.

Start by setting mini-goals – a tiny version of your big ambition. Then be sure you complete them every day. Here are two examples.

  • If you want to tone your body, you could set a mini-goal of one push-up a day (because getting down to the floor is 90 per cent of the battle won).
  • If you want a calmer mind, you could set a mini-goal of meditating for 30 seconds a day (because deciding to focus your mind is 90 per cent of the battle won).

2. Focus on repetition, repetition, repetition – not intensity

In the initial stages of behaviour change, how you perform at your tasks doesn’t matter, but repetition does. Take the ‘mini’ version of your new behaviour, and make sure you do it every day, without fail.

When we consistently practise something, we build both response memory and muscle memory. This means that we subconsciously start to prepare ourselves to do the behaviour every day. As a result, our bodies start to just ‘fall in’ to the activity. Eventually we find ourselves doing it, without even having to think about it.

Set things up to make repeating your new behaviour as easy as possible by linking it to an existing routine. Repeating the same small, precise, healthy behaviour every day leads to a successful and sustainable lifestyle change. For example, you could:

  • meditate for the first 30 seconds of your morning commute
  • eat a portion of fruit every time you have a cup of tea
  • run for one minute as soon as you get home from work

3. Collect streaks of completion

No matter how small the task, consistently finishing it and celebrating that completion every day, fuels success and motivation.

The human brain loves a sense of completion, and we get a little boost of dopamine every time we finish a task we’ve set ourselves (no matter how small). Dopamine is the neurohormone that powers the reward centre in our brains, and it makes us feel good – really, really good! After a certain amount of 'completed experiences' in one area, our brains start to ‘crave’ the feelings of reward that we get from completion. That motivates us to keep going with our new behaviours every day.

  • Concentrate on finishing your mini-goals every day. Remember that consistently finishing the tasks is motivational fuel for long-term behaviour change.

4. Design your environment for success

In most circumstances, the way our environment is designed has a greater influence on our decisions and our behaviours than our cravings, desires or motivations do.

Did you know, we eat about 22 per cent more from a 12-inch plate than from a 10-inch plate, and about 44 per cent more from a large bowl than a small bowl? We also eat far less in a clutter-free environment, and when we’re not distracted by TV, digital devices or the radio.

  • Put your large plates and bowls in a really inconvenient place, such as your garage or attic. It will really help you reduce your calorie intake and you’ll hardly notice the change.
  • Clear your tables and counter-tops so there’s nothing visible except a fruitbowl, and turn off electronic devices. You’ll eat far fewer calories.

The same rules of convenience and distraction apply to all other behaviours too.

  • If your gym gear is packed and ready the night before, you’re far more likely to make it to the fitness studio the next day.
  • If your headphones are within easy reach and you have already downloaded mediation podcasts to your phone, you’re more likely to continue your guided mindfulness practice.
  • If your bedroom TV is unplugged at the wall, you’re less likely to turn it on while in bed, and you’ll be able to get a better night’s rest (or get up earlier in the morning).

How our live event can help you

As a society, we are very good at knowing what to do, but most of us haven’t been taught the science of how to change. The advice and tips I’ll share in the webinar will give you some key insights and tips from the cutting edge of behavioural science. They’re designed to help you set and stick to your goals and ambitions over the long term, and to make the positive lifestyle changes you want. 

Don't delay - sign up for the free webinar here.

And if you need any more persuasion to join us in the New Year, here are six more findings from our research.

  • Over half of the people who made a New Year resolution last year say they failed to keep it (56 per cent).
  • Among those who have made a New Year resolution at some point in the past, 93 per cent of people said they failed to keep at least one of these.
  • Of those who say they have failed to keep a New Year resolution in the past, 43 per cent say they gave up, or realised they weren’t going to achieve it less than a month into it, and 66 per cent say they gave up after one full month or less.
  • When presented with a list of options for their 2016 New Year health and wellbeing goals, most people in the UK said that if they were to make one they would choose exercising more or losing weight (both 38 per cent). Eating more healthily came close behind (30 per cent).
  • When asked what they thought would best help them to keep their health and wellbeing resolutions in 2016, the most popular answers were: doing it with someone else (27 per cent) and having a step-by-step guide to follow (17 per cent).
  • Of those who have made and failed to keep a New Year’s resolution at some point in the past, just less than half say they plan to make one for 2016 (46 per cent).

*Research methodology note: ComRes interviewed 2,014 GB adults online between 20 and 22 November 2015. Data were weighted to be representative of all adults in Great Britain aged 18+ by age, gender, region and social grade. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.

Further reading

If you want to read up on this area ahead of the online event some great books can be found at....


Sarah O'Farrell

Sarah O'FarrellSarah is a social-cognitive psychologist and behavioural scientist, who specialises in understanding how cognitive biases, moods and emotions, social influences, and physical environments shape human behaviour. Her work also explores effective goal setting, motivation and the benefits and practises of mindfulness and compassion training. Sarah originally began her career in marketing, where she worked in behaviour change communications and behavioural economics. Following training in behavioural and psychological science, she has worked on a variety of wellbeing and health behaviour change projects with organisations such as UKAID and The London School of Economics.

Sarah is a Behaviour Change Advisor in the Wellbeing and Sustainability Team in Centre Medical & Corporate Affairs. The team will be leading the roll out of behaviour change capability building across Bupa in 2016 and beyond, providing colleagues in every area of our business with the opportunity to learn about behavioural science, and to develop skills in the application of behavioural insights – all in service of improving the health of the world, and creating longer, healthier, happier lives.

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