Why is January 1st the day for resolutions?
The first day of a new year brings a feeling of a fresh start. It gives us the sense that we have a new beginning, a new chapter opening in our lives. We could feel similarly on our birthday or when changing jobs but New Year typically brings the biggest fresh-start effect. There are two main reasons why this effect motivates us to make resolutions.
- It creates a sense that anything that preceded the day was the old you, and starting the new year is the new you. It’s an opportunity to wipe the slate clean.
- It makes you step back and think big-picture about your life and goals. It’s a disruption that could lead to a new era.
How successful are New Year’s resolutions?
A recent study from 2020 by Per Carlbring, a psychologist from the University of Stockholm, found that 55% of New Year’s resolutions worked. That sounds amazing! But there is a caveat. He recruited volunteers who were on average more motivated to make a change. Also, in his study, you did not have to be 100% successful. As long as you are moving in the right direction, that is enough to call it a success. This is probably why his study is showing such astonishing results.
If we look at previous literature, studies show a less optimistic picture. The numbers you find are closer to this 1989 study where 77% of participants maintained their resolutions for 1 week but only 19% ended up sticking with them long term for 2 years or more.
The fresh-start effect
As much as the start of a new year is a great opportunity for resolutions, your odds of succeeding are kind of low. But the good news is that research on the fresh-start effect is showing that there are many other opportunities for resolutions that you can take advantage of.
In fact, humans have a tendency to seek these fresh-start moments. For example, if you look when people search for the term “diet” on Google, there is a natural tendency to create goals more at these fresh-start moments like the beginning of a new year, birthdays, the start of a new week or a new month.
Every Monday is a new opportunity
Something as simple as a regular Monday can have a powerful effect. The research on fresh starts showed that Mondays were even more potent than the first day of the month when creating new goals. It’s probably because we notice the weekend a lot more than an end of a month. Weekends serve as a natural break to our routines. And these breaks can be a catalyst for change.
Another study on fresh starts looked at what happened in London after a 2-day strike of the subway system where people had to find other ways to get to work. This was a forced break in their routine. It turns out about 5% of commuters changed their way of commuting as a result of this forced experiment. It might have been a more pleasant walk or a convenient shop along the way. They found something new that was better for them and they stuck to it.
How do you make resolutions stick?
Research shows that you really need to have two things built into your resolutions.
Behavioural change experiments show that routine is important in building lasting habits. So, make sure you have a plan and a routine to get you on track. But behavioural science also shows that people who have some level of flexibility typically stick with new habits better. We all have to deal with unexpected events, struggle with self-control or simply forget. And that’s exactly when having some flexibility inside of your routine helps. Maybe you don’t have to go do your ride exactly at 17:30 every Wednesday but as long as you find a way to do that ride, it’s a success.
So, what’s going to be your New Year’s resolution for 2022? Are you planning something big? Or are you going to wait for Monday to start with that new habit?