At its core, a New Year's resolution is an attempt to change your behaviour by either creating a new habit, like reading more books, or to change an old one, like biting your nails.
As you've probably guessed, it takes more than just good intentions to alter our daily behaviours. New Year's resolutions, after all, are well known for their failure rate.
But there are some strategies that really can help behaviour changes stick, Dr. Benjamin Gardner, a senior lecturer at King's College London and an expert in social and health psychology, told INSIDER in a recent interview.
"There's a great deal of evidence around behaviour change," Garnder said. "Essentially, it all comes down to three things: motivation, capability, and opportunity."
In other words, to make a resolution with staying power, you need to be sufficiently motivated to do it, you must be realistically capable of doing it, and you need opportunities in your life to make it happen.
INSIDER spoke with Gardner to learn more about making resolutions that fit these criteria for a higher chance of lasting success. Here are seven things to consider if you're making goals for 2019.
The first step in selecting a New Year's resolution is picking something you're motivated to do because you actually want to.
This may seem counter-intuitive, especially if you've always thought of resolutions as changes to force upon yourself just because you "should," or as something you make because everyone else is making one, too.
"I think this is a problem with New Year's resolutions in general," Garnder said. "People feel pressure to have some kind of resolution, but if you don't have what we call intrinsic motivation - motivation from within to change your behaviour - then actually you're unlikely to follow through."
"People are often unrealistic in what they [think they] can do," Gardner said. "We have this great tendency to do what psychologists call 'self enhance' - we think of ourselves in very positive ways, we think we can do anything we want to do."
This tendency can prompt you to make an unrealistic goal, like resolving to go to the gym every day starting January 1, even though you currently don't exercise at all. That kind of dramatic change not likely to work. Gardner explained.
"I think the best way to go about it is setting yourself smaller goals. You can make progress toward them and once you start doing that you can feel like you're on a little bit of a roll and feel quite good about yourself," he said. "If you set yourself goals that are unachievable, you're going to feel disheartened because you haven't managed to achieve them."
Another common pitfall, Gardner explained, is resolving to achieve broad outcomes, like "lose weight," or "get in shape."
Your odds of success will increase if you instead choose highly specific behaviours that will help you reach those outcomes.
"The question is, how are you going to lose weight? What is it exactly that you're going to do?" Gardner said. "The more specific you are, the more likely you are to be able to change it."
These specific resolutions have another benefit: They can act as helpful reminders.
"Instead of having a broad goal such as, "I want to do more physical activity,' tie it to a particular situation," Gardner said. "For example, 'Tonight, when I get home, I'll pick up my gym bag and go to the gym.' When you find yourself at home, you remember. It's small things like that, setting mental reminders for yourself, that can be useful."
Once you've set a realistic, specific behavioural goal, spend time planning exactly how you'll work it into your existing schedule. If you're resolving to call a relative more often, for example, will you set yourself regular reminders on a calendar app? If you want to go for morning jogs, will you need to go to bed earlier or lay out your workout clothes in advance?
"There's a lot of research showing that if you plan to do something in a particular situation, you're more likely to do it," Gardner said.
Even the most strongly-held resolutions will at some point be tested, so it's good to spend time planning how you'll cope in situations that mess with your resolution plan.
"I might say I want to go to the gym tonight when my kids have gone to bed, but then I don't realize actually I'm going to be really tired," Gardner said. "It's very much about anticipating these situations and thinking about how you'll respond when you get there."
Maybe you can bookmark some online, at-home workout videos for nights you're too tired to leave for the gym, for instance. The specific strategies will differ from resolution to resolution - the advance planning is what's paramount.
Many New Year's resolutions stem from the desire to break an old habit. Gardner said one way to stop yourself from acting habitually is to disrupt your exposure to whatever triggers that habit.
"People don't have as much insight into their behaviour and its causes as they'd like to think. So if there's a behaviour they need to change, I think what they should do is go through an initial period of trying to track the potential triggers," he said. "So if you know you're eating too many unhealthy snacks, keep a diary of every unhealthy snack you eat and then write down what you were doing beforehand, who you were with, what mood you were in. Then you can look back on it [and find] there's a pattern."
You might find that being in a certain place or with a particular person can trigger a bad habit, for example, and if you're able to avoid those cues, you can avoid the habit.
Sometimes, though the things that trigger bad habits, like work stress, aren't easily avoidable. In these cases, you may be able to associate a trigger with a newer, healthier habit.
"If you're trying to break an existing habit, in theory, the best thing that you can do is consistently do something else in that situation," Gardner said. "So rather than saying, 'I'm not going to snack while I watch TV,' if you're going to carry on watching TV, snack on grapes or some kind of fruit. In that way, you are using your existing habit, but you're changing your response to the cue."
He acknowledged that this kind of change can be difficult, but with time and consistency, the new alternative behaviour can become the dominant one.
One overarching takeaway is that lasting behaviour changes - whether you make them in January or any time of year - require some forethought and planning.
"If you don't think about [a resolution] much beforehand, then you might be unrealistic with what you're doing or you might just not get around to doing it," Gardner said. "So I think the more thought that you can give to it, the better."
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