A time of reflection and resolve

December 1, 2016

A time of reflection and resolve

It's an impulse as inescapable as the passage of time itself: after the clock has chimed twelve, Auld Lang Syne has been sung, and a new day dawns on a new year, we'll be compelled to set a bunch of lofty resolutions.

About half of us will take part in this time-honoured tradition despite resolutions being what one wit called "a 'to do' list for the first week of January". And this isn't far wrong: according to a study conducted by the University of Scranton, only 8% of people who set resolutions actually manage to keep them past a few months.

Hoeing into an ice cream sundae just a few days after resolving to lose weight always comes with a heavy dose of defeatism as well calories, so why do we persist in setting those New Year resolutions?

Maybe it's a habit that, like those we resolve to break, is too entrenched to give up. After all, we've been making resolutions for at least 4,000 years.

At the start of their new year, when new crops were planted, Babylonians would hold a 12-day religious festival that included making promises to the gods. A couple of thousand years later, when the Romans changed the start of the new year to January, a month named for the god Janus, New Year celebrations included sacrifices to Him, along with promises of good behaviour.

But a recent study for the University of Pennsylvania suggests the making of New year resolutions is not a habit at all, but something to do with how we see time, and how we see ourselves. The research suggests we humans are subject to a "Fresh Start Effect", prompted by "temporal landmarks" – birthdays, the beginning of the week, the start of the month, and of course a new year.

The Fresh Start Effect prompts "new mental accounting periods" and thoughts of a clean slate. Apparently, Google searches for terms related to dieting, going to the gym, and setting and pursuing goals all increase dramatically at the New Year, as well other temporal landmarks.

"It's a time of reflection," says Alice Haemmerle, human behaviour strategist. "And it's an opportunity to focus on where you're heading."

Reflection is key, for far more than symbolic reasons. While resolutions thousands of years ago involved open promises and accountability to the gods, resolutions these days are internal and involve promises and accountability to ourselves alone. This is part of the reason why we find keeping resolutions so difficult: left to our own devices, we tend to set goals that are unrealistic, or fail to put in place the behaviours and support systems to ensure success. Keeping a resolution takes much more than a change in attitude.

"People go in with the same toolkit they've used in the past, and don't upgrade it," says Haemmerle, who believes that upgrading the toolkit should include modelling people who have been successful, being clear about what the goal will ultimately bring you, and above all, educating yourself.

"You also have to be open to things not working out," she adds.

This is an attitude that can pay off. In another study from the University of Scranton, researchers found that 53% of people who were successful at keeping New Year resolutions had experienced at least one "slip". In fact, the number of slips among successful people averaged 14. So slips don't necessarily mean failure, and are no excuse to not keep going.

"Go at your goal hard for 90 days. In 90 days you'll be able to see how you're tracking, whether the goal is still relevant to you, and whether you are becoming who you want to become," Haemmerle says.

Experts agree that we appear to set resolutions not just to do better but to be better. And being better is a powerful motivator: even though only a small percentage of us manage to keep them, people who set New Year resolutions are still 10 times more likely to have a rate of success than people who do not.

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