Academic research has shown that up to 50% of adults make New Year's resolutions (NYRs) and the most common resolutions are typically those that involve breaking bad habits and include such things as cutting down or quitting alcohol, cigarettes, and junk food. It's a time that individuals want to re-invent themselves but less than 10% actually manage to keep the NYRs after a few months.
As a Professor of Behavioural Addiction I know how easy people can fall into bad habits, and why on trying to give up those habits is easy to relapse. NYRs usually come in the form of lifestyle changes and changing behaviour that has become routine and habitual (even if they are not problematic) can be very hard to break.
Habits - whether they are good or bad - typically rely on the three R's (Reminder, Routine, Reward). The 'reminder' is the trigger that initiates a 'routine' (the behaviour itself) and leads to a reward (the benefit or perceived benefit of the behaviour)
For some people, it takes something radical for them to change their ways. To change your day-to-day behaviour you also have to change your thinking. But there are tried and tested ways that can help individuals stick to their NYRs and here are my personal favourites:
Be realistic - You need to begin by making NYRs that you can keep and that are practical. If you want to reduce your alcohol intake because you tend to drink alcohol every day, don't immediately go teetotal. Try to cut out alcohol every other day or have a drink once every three days. Also, breaking up the longer-term goal into more manageable short-term goals can also be beneficial and more rewarding. The same principle can be applied to exercise or eating more healthily.
Do one thing at a time - One of the easiest ways routes to failure is to have too many NYRs. If you want to be fitter and healthier, do just one thing at a time. Give up drinking. Give up smoking. Join a gym. Eat more healthily. But don't do them all at once. Chose just one and do your best to stick to it. Once you have got one thing under your control, you can begin a second resolution.
Be SMART - Anyone working in a job that includes objective-setting will know that any goal should be SMART (i.e., specific, measurable, achievable, realist and time-bound). NYRs should be no different. Cutting down alcohol drinking is an admirable goal but it's not SMART. Drinking no more than two units of alcohol every other day for one month is a SMART resolution. Connecting the NYR to a specific aspirational goal can also be motivating (e.g., dropping a dress size or losing two inches off your waistline in time for the next summer holiday).
Tell someone your resolution(s) - Letting family and friends around you know that you have a NYR that you really want to keep will act as both a safety barrier and a face-saver. If you really want to cut down smoking or drinking, real friends will not put temptation in your way and can help you in monitoring your day-to-day behaviour. Never be afraid to ask for help and support from those around you.
Change your behaviour with others - Trying to change habitual behaviour on your own can be difficult. For instance, if you and your partner both smoke, drink and/or eat unhealthily, it is really hard for one partner to change their behaviour if the other is still engaged in the same old bad habits. By having the same NYR (e.g., going on a diet), the chances of success will improve if you are both in it together.
Behavioural change isn't limited to the New Year - Changing your behaviour (or some aspect of it) doesn't have to be restricted to the start of the New Year. It can be anytime.
Accept lapses as part of the process - It is inevitable that when trying to give up something (alcohol, cigarettes, junk food) that there will be lapses. You shouldn't feel guilty about giving in to your cravings but accept that it is part of the learning process in enabling behavioural change. Bad habits can take years to become engrained and there are no quick fixes in making major lifestyle changes. These may be clichés but we learn by our mistakes and every day is a new day and you can start each day afresh. Right here. Right now.
Finally, some of you reading this might think all of this sounds like too much hard work and that it's not worth making NYRs to begin with. However, research has also shown that individuals who make NYRs are ten times more likely to achieve their goals than those that don't make explicit NYRs. Food for thought (rather than thought for food)!