Why New Year's Resolutions Can Actually Work

And how to make ones you’ll keep.

There's a lot of chatter around New Year's resolutions of late (duh). Ask ten people what they think of them, and we can almost guarantee you'll garner some competing interests.

Make them ... don't make them. Set one goal at a time ... aim for many. Tell someone ... tell no one... You get the gist.

There is no one way to do anything. There are always multiple routes to get from A to B and it's about setting up the types of goal that may get you there.

Whilst some believe in the act of resolution-making at the start of the new year and will goal-set committedly, others will write off the process entirely.

But when you look at recent psychological research backing up this phenomena that can so often leave us divided, it all starts to make a lot more sense.

The 'Fresh Start Effect'

Recent studies use this to understand the impact of temporal landmarks on goal setting.

"Researchers who termed the effect were referring to the fact that certain dates in the calendar can serve as a time-based landmark in our lives that, just like physical landmarks, can mark a signficant place," Lisa A Williams, Senior Lecturer at The University of New South Wales' School of Psychology, told The Huffington Post Australia.

"When we hit that landmark, we tend to engage in a psychological process that sees us entering a new phase. By that, we see our past self as behind us and this new time-based landmark allows us to have fresh start and make new commitments to old goals or create new ones."

If you are going to make a goal to somehow better yourself, you need to somehow have a break from any past behaviours that may have driven away this goal.

The start of a new calendar year, among other time markers that come with waaaaay less hype, spurs a range of initiations relating to improvement of the self and overall wellbeing. Studies show surges in Google searches around diet and gym attendance in January, with a month-by-month decline.

According to Williams, this demarcation of the past and present self is crucial.

"If you are going to make a goal to somehow better yourself, which is the general gist of resolutions, you need to somehow have a break from any past behaviours that may have driven away this goal or past attempts that may not have been successful," Williams said.

The 'End Of An Era' Effect

Williams offers a second piece of research from 2014.

"This research shows people who are approaching a new decade in chronological age (29, 39 and so on) seek resolution as to what they have done in their life," Williams said. "If we take a year as an era, it is pretty likely that the same drivers are at play.

"And if we pair those two effects together -- that someone is seeing the new year as a time that separates the past from the future and also as a time to seek meaning and solidify what it is that they are doing in their life -- this will probably lead to setting goals that may prove effective.

Generally a good place to reflect.
Generally a good place to reflect.

Reflection versus goal setting

The 'end of an era' effect rings true for the power of reflection -- an approach that for some offers more than resolution.

According to Williams, reflection and goal setting needn't be mutually exclusive.

If we are trying to set up effective goals, we do need to reflect on where we've been and where we're going.

"I think that you can engage in them separately. You can reflect without goal-setting and equally, you can probably set goals without reflecting. But the latter is not the best way forward -- it's more effective to leverage one off the other," Williams said.

"If we are trying to set up effective goals, we do need to reflect on where we've been and where we're going. This may actually lead to a point where better goals are made and those goals more be more realistic and more catered for."

Does this actually work?

Well, that comes down to your own perception.

"What research shows is that there is spike in internet searches for goal-related things. So whether you believe it or not, there is a tendency to engage in the process at this time," Williams said.

"If you don't see New Year's Day as a temporary landmark or a fresh start, you probably won't use the psychological processes to your benefit."

If you do, read on.

How to make them stick

When it comes to effective goal setting, we see lots of methods plucked out -- without being placed up against one another. For Williams, one is never better than the other. But again, research provides interesting direction.

1. Use a 'commitment device'

"This strategy uses something to somehow engage with out process of making a commitment," Williams said. "They work for a lot of people."

This may be a public commitment such as broadcasting your goals on Facebook to keep you accountable. But it may not be your cup of tea.

2. Don't go at it alone

This may be more like it. Garnering social support has to be shown to be crucial for reaching goals -- to the extent that you are happy to share your resolutions with others.

"Family and friends, who are supportive of your goals, can help you when you start to meet obstacles and remind you of your goal when you have conveniently forgotten," Williams said.

"Some of the research has shown that in the area of weight loss, those who signed up to programs with friends were more successful. There are likely a lot of prostheses underlying this effect but the punchline is doing it with others is better than doing it alone. And you're gaining more social benefits!"

3. Set a range over a specific goal

This one's controversial. You're resolving to exercise more in 2017. Should you set a goal weight or leave things more open?

"If you compare specific goal setting to goal setting that includes a range, the range proves more effective," Williams said

Take going to the gym. Rather than resolving to go five days a week for 52 weeks, aim for three to six times a week for 48-52 weeks.

"This allows for times when you can't meet your exact goal. It leaves you bottom end leeway, whilst at the top end, you can exceed your goal -- and that feels really good. You can pick up benefits from both ends."

Setting a range should allow you do engage in goal setting more realistically.

4. Try different things

"There's this ongoing debate in research about whether you need to do lots of different things to become healthier and happier or whether you do one thing a lot of the time," Williams said.

"Recent research suggests that over a period of time, it is variety."

Take being creative. "You don't need to create only one type of thing. You can find different ways to commit to being creative in the new year because that as a whole will give you a good sense of well being."