THE BLOG

Dry January. How Was It for You?

03/02/2015 11:43 GMT | Updated 04/04/2015 10:59 BST

Joined a gym recently? Been on a diet? Perhaps you've even taken a break from the booze?

Back in December, a YouGov poll reported that 63% of Brits were planning to make New Year's resolutions, with losing weight and getting fit proving the most popular commitments.

And as January drew to a close, corks were popping at the end of a record season for self-imposed misery. Alcohol Concern reported that 40,000 people, twice as many as last year, had joined its Dry January campaign and Cancer Research UK announced that 50,000 had signed up to its own Dryathlon. Even Nigel Farage was at it, reportedly swapping pints of bitter for lemonade and ginger beer on the campaign trail.

The "new year, new you" message feels like it gets more insistent every year. But up against this wall of sound is an increasingly popular counter-argument. It says that January is the worst possible time of year for a health kick. It's cold and miserable outside, we all still have a cupboard full of Christmas treats to finish and what we really need is gin, comfort food and unchallenging telly to get us through to the Spring. Indeed, according December's YouGov survey, nearly a third of people were fully expecting to have broken their resolutions before the end of January.

So does this annual exercise in behaviour change actually have any impact at all? Are our ill-conceived New Year's resolutions doomed to fail?

If we look at behavioural theory, there's evidence to suggest that the sceptics might be overstating the futility of January austerity. One of the most powerful forces in behaviour change is social norms, the simple idea that we are heavily influenced by what others do. This herd instinct is certainly at play in January and the hype is such that you might be forgiven for thinking that the entire nation has adopted a monk-like existence at this time of year (though I've sometimes wondered if walking past a busy pub might undermine this for some).

The feeling of strength in numbers is reinforced by the growing trend of announcing our commitments on social media, or in some cases even seeking sponsorship for them. It's much harder to quietly drop a pledge that has been made publicly.

Other influences at play include expert messengers, with everyone from Weight Watchers to the Department of Health's Change 4 Life getting in on the act, and the fact that healthy living feels particularly relevant right now after the overconsumption of Christmas. There are also plenty of incentives on offer, with deals on gym membership, detox plans and Ron Hill Tracksters very much de rigueur. Meanwhile the financial consequences of not reining back our spending now the party season is over may well act as a disincentive to January carousing.

The case for turning over a new leaf at this time of year is supported by Alcohol Concern's study of previous participants in Dry January. Evaluation by the University of Sussex showed that, six months on, its effects included drinking less overall and getting drunk less often.

As someone who spends his working life trying to influence the behaviour of others, I'm happy to report that my own personal attempts at going teetotal this January have been successful, although I have added a few quirks of my own. Waiting until the 5th to start was one strategy I adopted, based on evidence that a New Year's Day start may be the surest route to failure. I also allowed myself a couple of days off in honour of birthdays and celebrations, rather than sitting in the corner wondering why jokes seem so much less funny when you're sober.

There's plenty of discussion in behaviour change circles about how long a new habit takes to become established. In my case it took me about two weeks to find my rhythm. I'm keeping going for now, but as we enter the uncharted territory of February I suspect that my old habit of a glass or two of the good stuff after work might not take too long to reassert itself.