For thousands of years, people have been setting intentions at the beginning of the new year. We now call these intentions, “New Year’s Resolutions”. In ancient Babylonian times, the new year was celebrated with a 12-day religious festival called Akitu. During this celebration, Babylonians made promises to the gods to pay any debts they owed. In return, the gods would grant a favor on them for the new year.
The Romans had a similar approach to the new year as the Babylonians. Julius Caesar is said to have established January 1st as the start of the new year, as January symbolized looking backwards into the previous year and ahead into the future. At the beginning of the new year, Romans would offer sacrifices to the Greek gods and made promises of good acts for the new year.
How many people make resolutions each year?
Today, about 44% of Americans say they make New Year’s resolutions. The largest focus is on physical health, specifically weight loss and eating healthy.¹ This year, the three most common New Year’s resolutions are related to improving finances, eating healthier, and being more physically active. Americans are still focused on weight loss, as 2 in 5 Americans report their resolution is to lose weight. A newer trend seen for New Year’s resolutions in 2021 is to improve mental well-being through techniques such as stress reduction and mindfulness.
How many people succeed?
Although several individuals make New Year’s resolutions, only about 55% of individuals successfully sustain their resolutions.¹ Most resolutions are focused on changing a specific lifestyle behavior. The truth is, it’s very difficult to change our daily behaviors. In fact, it can take up to 2-3 months before a new behavior becomes “second nature.”²
The Psychology of Making Nutrition & Health-Related Resolutions
As mentioned above, the majority of New Year’s resolutions are related to nutrition and weight loss related goals. The standard approach to food and weight related health goals is typically through dietary restriction. Our behaviors related to restrained eating are learned through operant conditioning.³ Certain behaviors, or food choices, are reinforced with positive or negative reinforcement. Engaging in restricted eating behaviors may result in positive reinforcement (feeling better, moving towards a health goal) or negative reinforcement (avoiding feelings of guilt or having broken one’s dieting “rules”). These types of reinforcements keep us motivated in achieving our goals. The thought is that these reinforcements will lead to long-term behavior change.
Why do so many people fail?
Even when people have motivation to achieve set goals, many fall short of meeting them. There can be many reasons individuals don’t succeed in keeping their new health resolutions. One may be that lifestyle changes in particular are challenging, especially when trying to make several changes at once. Another reason may be that people sometimes set unrealistic goals, setting themselves up for failure. If you set a New Year’s resolution and don’t succeed, don’t be too hard on yourself. Try reframing your health goals, making sure you are setting small, attainable goals.
Why do people keep making resolutions?
So, why do people keep making resolutions on the 1st of each year if only 55% of people are successful? Well, January 1st is a “temporal landmark”, marking the beginning of a new period in time.⁴ Studies show that individuals experience increased motivation to engage in activities moving towards a goal at the beginning of a temporal landmark. This may also be why people are more likely to start a diet or exercise routine on a Monday vs. a Wednesday. At the beginning of the new year, individuals are more motivated to take actionable steps towards a healthier lifestyle.
What are the benefits of making resolutions related to health?
Setting goals helps to motivate us to work toward something we desire. Setting a New Year’s resolution is similar. When we set resolutions at the start of the year, we are setting goals for ourselves to reach during the year. Goals can enhance motivation to help us succeed, moving toward what we want.
When resolutions are set related to health, such as with healthy eating and physical activity, improvements may help decrease risk of certain chronic diseases and improve quality of life. As you set your New Year’s resolution, it is important to remember that health is not only affected by our food choices and our physical activity level. The CDC states that health is determined by many factors, including behavior, medical care, genetics, environmental and physical influences, and social factors. The good thing is that these categories are often interconnected, meaning that making changes to one health factor may benefit another factor.
Are there disadvantages to making resolutions?
When setting resolutions to achieve during the new year, we often do not make plans for achieving these goals and may set goals that are unattainable or overly ambitious. For example, maybe you have set a weight loss goal in the past and struggled to achieve that goal.
Was the goal you set too large?
Did you remember to make smaller daily and weekly goals to achieve your larger goal?
Although goal setting is so important, one of the biggest disadvantages to setting New Year’s resolutions is disappointment. When we set large goals for ourselves without breaking the goal down into smaller, short term goals, our likelihood of success is low. When we set goals that we don’t achieve, it is easy to feel disappointed. If you’ve felt this way in the past, don’t feel discouraged! Using goal setting techniques can help improve your success this year.
What are the characteristics of people who are successful at achieving their health-related goals?
Those successful at achieving health-related goals often set both long-term and short-term goals. A short term goal is one that can occur in the short term, within a few days or weeks, and is more easily attainable with your current skill set. A long term goal will take longer to achieve, such as a few months, a year, or longer, and is typically more challenging to obtain. It is helpful to set a long term goal and then determine smaller, short term goals and steps needed to achieve the long term goal.
We all face different challenges to meeting our goals, and therefore different tactics will work for different people. Although following one person’s approach may not be right for you, there are certain characteristics seen in making lasting lifestyle changes.
1. When making a plan, design a plan that will stick.
Try not to simply set an overarching goal. Make plans that are realistic to your life that will guide you toward your goal. Check in with yourself and ask how confident you are feeling about your planned actions. If you don’t feel confident, further break down your actions to smaller goals. Make sure you are starting small. When we start too big in trying to achieve our goals, we can easily lose motivation if we fail.
2. Focus on one behavior at a time.
It’s common to have more than one change we want to make in our lives. Although it is okay to set multiple goals, try to focus on one behavior change and one goal at a time. Doing too much at once may be overwhelming and affect your success.
3. Find someone to keep you accountable and seek out support.
Discussing your goals with a friend, family member, or coworker helps hold you accountable. Once someone knows you are working toward a change, they are likely to check in and ask about how it is going. You can also gain support through a group that shares a common goal, family and friends, or a health professional, we all need support when facing challenges.
4. Set your goals for the right reasons.
Take some time to think through what you truly want out of the new year. Don’t set your resolutions based on what you think others want you to do or what you think is the right goal based on societal norms. Set resolutions that are important to you.
What are the characteristics of successful nutrition and health-related resolutions?
It may seem obvious, but successful nutrition and health-related resolutions focus on overall health. We often set large health goals that are based on misconceptions of what is necessary to be healthier. Say you set a resolution to eat healthy this year and you tell yourself you are going to cut out all sugar to achieve this goal.
Is this goal going to lead to restrictive eating patterns?
Will your mental health suffer significantly by cutting out all sugary foods?
Consider reframing your goals to what you can add to your lifestyle, such as adding more vegetables, as a step to eating healthier this year. This helps you to focus on your nutritional health without as much restriction.
In a large study assessing the success of different resolutions, it was found that approach based goals were significantly more successful for participants than goals that were based in avoidance. Approach oriented goals are focused on gaining competence and improving performance whereas avoidance oriented goals are rooted in avoiding looking incompetent and being outperformed by others.
Ask yourself, how can you gain competence and improve your performance related to health in the New Year?
Another key to successful nutrition and health-related resolutions is including self-compassion. In order to do this when setting goals, acknowledge that you may not be perfect in your process. If you make mistakes in working toward your goal, recognize your setback so that you can be ready to continue moving forward.
How to set and Keep S.M.A.R.T New’s Year’s Resolutions
S.M.A.R.T. is an acronym often used for goal setting. It is designed to help us make plans for reaching goals. Grab a pen and paper and make your New Year’s resolution into a “SMART” goal:
Specific: Make your goal clear and specific. If you simply say “I want to get healthy this year,” this is a bit vague.
Measurable:Ask yourself, how will you know if you are making progress or meeting your goal? How will you measure and check in with yourself throughout the year?
Attainable: Your goal should be within reach, but not too easy that you lack motivation. Once you reach this goal, set another to help move you towards a bigger goal.
Realistic: Set goals that are relevant and realistic to your current life situation. It’s tempting to set goals that are trendy or that our friends and family have worked towards. Take a moment to assess if these goals are fitting to your life and to what you want.
Timely: Make sure there is an end-point to your goal to help motivate you to keep moving forward.
How can GenoPalate help?
Setting New Year’s health resolutions can be very personal, since we are all so different. Goals, challenges, motivations and lifestyles differ from person to person. It’s important to know where these differences exist and where to begin making changes. Our genetics can give us clues to these differences and provide us insight on our personalized dietary needs. Gain a better understanding of your body, allow your genes to inform your health goals this year.
Learn more about how DNA testing and personalized nutrition can help you eat right for your genes.
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1. Oscarsson, M., Carlbring, P., Andersson, G., & Rozental, A. (2020). A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. Plos one, 15(12), e0234097.
2. Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’and general practice. British Journal of General Practice, 62(605), 664-666.
3. Brewer, J. A., Ruf, A., Beccia, A. L., Essien, G. I., Finn, L. M., Lutterveld, R. V., & Mason, A. E. (2018). Can mindfulness address maladaptive eating behaviors? Why traditional diet plans fail and how new mechanistic insights may lead to novel interventions. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1418.
4. Dai, H., Milkman, K. L., & Riis, J. (2015). Put your imperfections behind you: Temporal landmarks spur goal initiation when they signal new beginnings. Psychological science, 26(12), 1927-1936.