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New Year, New Me

Did you make a snazzy New Year's resolution? Join Izzah Adnan as she explores the psychology of why we love torturing ourselves with unrealistic expectations during champagne season. 

The confetti has settled, the champagne has been sipped, and we've welcomed another year with open arms. Ah, the season of resolutions, where gym memberships skyrocket, Pinterest vision boards come to life, and kale suddenly becomes a staple in every grocery cart. But let's face it, despite the good intentions, the statistics are grim – over 90% [1] of these resolutions will crash and burn faster than a firework on New Year's Eve. So, why do we repeatedly succumb to the allure of the ‘fresh start effect’, exposing ourselves to this cycle of hope and disappointment? The answer lies in the psychology of resolutions and the pitfalls we often overlook.

The Hype Behind January 1st

Why do we even bother with New Year's resolutions when we can set goals at any time? The turning of the calendar year acts as a universal reset button, a symbolic opportunity for reflection, says licensed clinical psychologist Terri Bly. It's a moment when the entire world collectively decides to look back and strive for self-improvement. The desire to make resolutions becomes contagious as we witness those around us planning their transformations.

Yet, the enthusiasm often overshadows the practicality of our goals. According to a Forbes Health/OnePoll survey, a whopping 61.7% of respondents felt pressured to set resolutions, with 66.5% planning three or more for the year ahead. [3] We seem caught up in the enthusiasm for change without truly considering what it entails.

Thinking Too Big: The Resolutions Pitfall

One of the biggest reasons our resolutions crumble like a poorly baked cookie is that we set ourselves up for failure with grandiose expectations. We're drawn to the allure of sweeping changes, the kind that sounds impressive but is, in reality, unsustainable. As Terri Bly succinctly puts it, “Where we go wrong with New Year's resolutions is there's this idea that it's supposed to be some big, sweeping change because that sounds kind of sexy. [But] as humans, we're not wired to make big, sweeping changes”. [4]

If the goal is to learn a new language, setting the target of fluency in four months is setting oneself up for disappointment. According to licensed professional counsellor, Jennifer Kowalski, the key is to break down these colossal goals into smaller, more achievable milestones. [5] Devote five minutes a day to learn a new word or phrase, and suddenly the mountainous task of fluency becomes a series of manageable hills.

The 'Why' Behind Resolutions: A Missing Piece

We often embark on resolutions without truly understanding why we're doing it. Change, as Bly points out, requires a level of discomfort. If the pain of not changing isn't greater than the pain of changing, we're likely to abandon ship at the first sign of turbulence. Many resolutions are based on what we think we should do, not on what truly matters to us.

If hitting the gym is the resolution, delve into the why. Is it for physical fitness, mental well-being, or societal expectations? Understanding the personal motivation behind a goal is crucial for long-term commitment, as Bly emphasises, “That is going to be way better than a should”.  If the resolution aligns with personal values and desires, the journey becomes more enjoyable and sustainable.

Not Ready for Change: The Stages of Transformation

The ‘Stages of Change model’ [6] sheds light on why some revolutions succeed while others fizzle out. Bly suggests that successful resolution-makers are likely at the ‘Action’ stage when setting their goals, indicating a well-thought-out plan. Those who fail are often at the ‘Precontemplation’ or ‘Contemplation’ stages, making resolutions on a whim without adequate psychological preparation.

Change, for it to become a habit, needs time and consistency. Kowalski stresses the importance of incremental changes, making the uncomfortable familiar. Setting small, achievable milestones throughout the year rather than relying on a grand gesture on January 1st can lead to lasting transformation.

The Fresh-Start Effect: A Psychological Reset

The allure of January 1st lies in what psychologists call the ‘fresh-start effect’. It's a temporal milestone, a psychological reset button that prompts individuals to contemplate changes in behaviour. However, this effect alone is not enough; success requires effective goal-setting and support.

A study by Stockholm University in Sweden [7] highlights the potential effectiveness of New Year's resolutions in behaviour change. Participants who received some support reported greater success, suggesting that information, instructions, and exercises on effective goal setting play a crucial role. This implies that resolutions, coupled with the right guidance, can be a powerful strategy for transformation.

Creating Lasting Change: A New Approach

So, how do we break free from the vicious cycle of failed resolutions? Instead of clinging to the allure of a grand, impractical goal, consider crafting a timeline with smaller milestones. These milestones act as stepping stones toward a bigger, more achievable objective. It may lack the glamour of a traditional New Year's resolution, but the psychology behind it makes success far more likely.

As we navigate the seas of change, let's abandon the ship of unrealistic expectations. Embrace the discomfort of growth, understand the 'why' behind your goals, and embark on a journey of incremental, sustainable transformation. After all, it's not about a new year, new me; it's about a new mindset, a commitment to continuous improvement, and the understanding that change doesn't happen overnight – it's a journey, not a destination. So, here's to a year of realistic resolutions, sustainable growth, and a better understanding of ourselves. May the fresh-start effect be with us all year round!

[1] Mental Health UK, New Year, New Me? Why New Year’s resolutions can be unhelpful, and how to set healthy goals, 2024. Online.

[2]  Psychology Compass, Reaching goals with the science of the “fresh start effect”, 2018. Online. 

[3] Graham, Dawn. Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work (And What You Can Do Instead!), Forbes. 2019. Online.

[4] Vinney, Cynthia. The Psychology Behind Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail. Verywell Mind, 2024. Online.

[5] Jones, Callum. Psychologist explains the key reasons why New Year’s resolutions fail. UNILAD. 2023. Online,

[6] LaMorte, Wayne. The Transtheoretical Model (stages of change). Boston University School of Public Health, 2022.

[7] Oscarsson, Martin et al. A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals’, 2020. 


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