Deep Dives Level Up Newsletters Saved Articles Challenges

Master the art of ‘new year, new me’ using behavioural psychology

By Anna McLaughlin

Jan 10, 2022

COPY URL

Failing to keep New Year’s resolutions is just about as popular as making them in the first place. In fact, 25 per cent of people who make a New Year’s resolution are proven to give up by 7 January every year. Many of us are enticed by the clean slate that the time brings along with the opportunity to turn over a new leaf, so we make vows to become healthier, happier and more productive. I mean, who doesn’t want a good excuse to at least try to ditch their bad habits and toxic relationships? But why do so many of us fail, or often give up completely?

Fortunately, behavioural psychologists have been investigating what makes people turn good intentions into long-term habits for over 100 years now. If you want to ensure that your resolutions don’t fail, try using these five tricks from behaviour change psychology to master the art of ‘new year, new me’:

The 21 day myth

Most people would say that it takes 21 days to form a habit, but according to science, that’s a myth. It turns out that 21 days is the minimum amount of time needed, but on average it actually takes around two months to form a new habit. Sometimes, it can even take up to eight whole months if the habit involves a significant lifestyle change.

The length of time needed really depends on how much of a lifestyle change you’re aiming for—for example, deciding to eat a piece of fruit every day will be fairly easy to integrate into your existing routine. However, if you’re trying to overhaul and revamp your entire diet, don’t be disappointed if you don’t develop new taste buds within a month. Forming new habits is a process, and embracing a longer timeline means that you allow enough time to fail and learn from it, rather than seeing it as a reason for giving up.

When it comes to making New Year’s resolutions that stick, try implementing mini habits that you can progressively add into your routine every month. Success is more likely to follow if you set small goals based on achieving a larger goal, as multiple short-term goals are guaranteed to help motivate you in the pursuit of your long-term ambitions. For example, if you want to improve your diet, start with smaller changes like making healthier swaps while you’re out grocery shopping or trying one new recipe a week. Sounds like a good start, right?

Bribe your brain with dopamine

In 2017, a group of researchers investigated why only some people were able to stick to their resolutions with ease while most failed miserably. They were surprised to discover that only one thing predicted long-term success. Surprisingly, it didn’t matter how motivated people were, nor how important they believed their resolutions to be. The only factor that predicted adherence to a long-term goal was whether someone actively enjoyed the behaviour they performed to achieve the goal.

When you enjoy something, the psychological process releases the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter dopamine, which leads to feelings of pleasure and happiness. Many addictive habits—such as smoking, drinking alcohol or eating junk food—are highly rewarding because they result in an instant spike of dopamine. Our brains are hardwired to prefer activities that quickly reward us with this neurotransmitter, which means you have to get creative when it comes to resolutions based on long-term benefits.

One way to do that is by pairing a highly rewarding behaviour (say drinking coffee) with a healthy habit to create a positive association in your brain. For instance, if you want to exercise before work and you love drinking coffee in the morning, make it a rule to only drink coffee after putting your gym clothes on or treat yourself to a coffee on your way to the gym. Soon your brain will learn to associate gym preps with the enjoyment of drinking coffee.

Although tackling addictive behaviour is more difficult, there are ways to break the vicious cycle between cravings and bad habits. London-based psychiatrist and addiction expert, Doctor Alberto Pertusa, recommends trying the famous five-second rule to override cravings. The rule is pretty simple: as soon as you crave something—like a strong drink or a cigarette—start counting backwards (5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0). As soon as you finish counting, you have to immediately launch into any kind of physical activity without much thought, so that there’s no time for your thoughts to creep back in.

The 5-second rule works because counting backwards requires more mental effort than counting forwards, thus engaging the prefrontal cortex in your brain to temporarily override cravings or procrastination. Launching yourself into another activity also helps to distract and stimulate your brain, which reduces the desire for dopamine. In Doctor Pertusa’s experience, using the five-second rule to improve willpower can become a positive habit in itself, although it may not work for everyone.

Resistance is futile

Have you ever tried to stop thinking about something, only to end up obsessing over it instead? Psychology studies have confirmed that trying to give up a bad habit by simply telling yourself not to do it can ironically lead to a behavioural rebound effect.

In one such study, people who tried to stop thinking about eating chocolate for a mere five minutes actually ended up eating more than people who didn’t. Resolutions that focus on avoiding or suppressing a specific behaviour work in similar ways. Another large-scale study of over 1,000 people discovered that New Year’s resolutions based on avoidance were far less successful than ones driven by positive motivation in the long term.

That doesn’t mean you can’t give up a bad habit, but instead of trying to avoid it (and maybe failing to), resolve to replace it with a new one instead. Most (highly rewarding) bad habits are triggered by stress or boredom, so choosing a replacement activity that’s also similar or just as enjoyable can trick your brain out of craving it.

The law of least effort

Want to know why some people exercise, but most of us don’t? According to Professor Seppo Iso-Ahola, exercise undermines our sense of freedom on an unconscious level. While it may sound odd to think of yoga as a form of dictatorship, exercise poses a threat by removing our freedom of choice and taking up our leisure time.

Most of us have a few precious hours of free time a day, so we may begin to unconsciously resent how much time we spend not only exercising itself, but also getting ready or travelling to and from the gym. Over time, our willpower begins to weaken as our conscious desire to exercise battles against our unconscious ones to just chill (what our brain calls libertarian freedom and autonomy of choice). Over time, this depletes our mental energy, so eventually, when faced with the decision of whether or not to exercise, our brain follows the ‘law of least effort’—and we end up binge-watching TV instead.

To combat the law of least effort and overthrow your brain’s libertarian ideologies, you would have to resort to a psychological mind game by creating a forced choice.

To do this, feed your brain with the illusion of autonomy by allowing yourself to choose different activities depending on your mood or how much free time you have. The trick is that all your options have to involve some form of exercise, which makes it mentally easier than ‘all or nothing’ decisions about the activity. For example, if you normally go for a run but you’re tired, you can choose to go for a walk instead. If it’s raining, you’ll have to exercise indoors. You get the idea.

Make it more fun with foreplay

You may have realised by now that your brain is very demanding when it comes to behaviour change. If you want to make things more enjoyable, it’s time to engage in cognitive foreplay.

To explain how this works, it might be helpful to compare it with having a crush on someone. When you like someone, your brain tumbles you into having positive thoughts about them spontaneously, which pop up in your head often throughout the day. What’s fascinating about behaviour change is that you can convince your brain to do the same with specific habits—by actively concentrating and savouring the positive experience while you’re doing it, and also reminding yourself of how nice it was throughout the day.

Savouring the positive experience will lead to spontaneous positive thoughts about it, which fosters motivation on an unconscious level to repeat the activity. Previous studies have shown that people who do this become increasingly sensitive in their ability to derive greater enjoyment from performing positive health behaviours. On a biological level, this essentially rewires your brain to activate the pleasure and reward centres more often—call it cognitive foreplay, if you like.

What have we learned?

Humans are creatures of habit which are formed due to a complex interplay of conscious and unconscious desires—strengthened over time with routine, repetition and positive rewards. Behaviour psychology reinforces the fact that we have the power to mould both our brain’s biology and behaviour, meaning that New Year’s resolutions can be a powerful catalyst for change if we approach our resolutions the right way. So what are you waiting for? Whip out your digital devices and start curating your 2022 vision board as a step in the right direction today.

Anna McLaughlin is an academic Neuroscientist and the Founder of Sci-translate, a digital science communication agency, based in London, UK. With a PhD in Neuroscience & Psychology, MSc in Psychiatric Research and BSc in Psychological Science, she specialises in the neuroscience of wellbeing, which spans mental health, physical health, nutrition, immune function, fitness, sleep and productivity.