It's part of the new year ritual – an annual attempt to start afresh and turn over a new leaf. But making resolutions is a near pointless exercise, psychologists say. We break them, become dispirited in the process and finally more despondent than we were before.
Less than a quarter of those asked for a university study had managed to stick to their resolutions. Of those who failed, many had followed the spurious advice of self-help gurus – which almost guarantees disaster, apparently.
Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, who led the analysis, said he and his team had asked 700 people about their strategies for achieving new year resolutions. Their goals ranged from losing weight or giving up smoking to gaining a qualification or starting a better relationship.
Of the 78% who failed, many had focused on the downside of not achieving the goals; they had suppressed their cravings, fantasised about being successful, and adopted a role model or relied on willpower alone.
"Many of these ideas are frequently recommended by self-help experts but our results suggest that they simply don't work," Wiseman said. "If you are trying to lose weight, it's not enough to stick a picture of a model on your fridge or fantasise about being slimmer."
On the other hand, people who kept their resolutions tended to have broken their goal into smaller steps and rewarded themselves when they achieved one of these. They also told their friends about their goals, focused on the benefits of success and kept a diary of their progress.
People who planned a series of smaller goals had an average success rate of 35%, while those who followed all five of the above strategies had a 50% chance of success, the study found.
"Many of the most successful techniques involve making a plan and helping yourself stick to it," Wiseman said.
Making new year resolutions at the last minute can backfire, he warned, because such decisions tend to be less genuinely motivated. "If you do it on the spur of the moment, it probably doesn't mean that much to you and you won't give it your all. Failing to achieve your ambitions is often psychologically harmful because it can rob people of a sense of self control."
Other strategies that helped people to achieve their goals included making only one resolution at a time and treating occasional lapses in the plan as just temporary setbacks.
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