Mythbusting New Years Resolutions


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It’s almost New Year’s Day. So happy almost 2017! And with a new year, come the New Year’s resolutions. Calls for a new you, as if the old you is somehow flawed (I assure you likely not, at least not in any way everyone else isn’t too, but I digress). I am the kind of person who likes to make decisions based on the best available evidence. But with New Years resolutions and changing habits, there’s less science in the conversation than there is schmience. I wanted to make the evidence easier to find in this post.

What does science say about New Year’s resolutions? According to recent research, between 40 and 50 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Anywhere from 80 percent to 92 percent of those who so make resolutions fail to keep them for longer than a few months. Most of our resolutions revolve around self-improvement of some kind or another. A recent Nielsen survey found that fitness resolutions are the most common kind. Another common thread in resolutions are myths about changing habits. These are all myths I own that I’ve both held and tried on for size (hint: I failed, and then learned).

Myth 1. I’ll change everything all at once. I’m going to eat less, move more, save money, and be more productive at work.

Well, maybe. Maybe not. It’s commonly held that we should change one thing at a time. A recent study found great results in a multifaceted lifestyle intervention. It was one study, though, of 30 college students, that compared this strategy to a waitlist and didn’t measure how long habits changed. So the jury is out whether it’s better to change one thing at a time or everything at once. And it’s likely situational.

Regardless, it’s probably better to focus on changes that can be sustained, and to get specific with the goals. A recent study from Dominican University found that when goals are specific, written, and there is accountability they are more likely to be achieved.  One psychologist has said don’t try a habit unless you want it permanently. So no matter what you decide to change, if anything, think about what the actual goal is, and find a plan that works for your situation.

Myth 2. My gym/yoga studio/tabloid magazine/BFF told me about a great new 30 day challenge. I’m going to do it and then it’ll stick forever.

The ubiquitous 30-day challenge. Burpees, running, yoga, vegan, etc. If you can Google it, there’s probably a 30-day challenge for it. Why 30 days? It’s a number people can stick with? It’s a realistic time frame? It’s even? Everyone else is doing it? It’s 9 more days than the actual magic number, which is 21 days to start a new habit. Everyone says it so it must be true.

Uhh no. That number doesn’t come from any research on habits. That number is a quote from a plastic surgeon-cum-psychologist named Maxwell Maltz in his 1960 book Psycho Cybernetics about the number of days it takes patients to adjust to their new body. Does your vegannaise from that 30-day challenge sound and taste like plastic surgery? I didn’t think so. Or maybe it does, what do I know? University College London’s Health Chatter blog wrote a great piece about this in depth. I’ll let them say it for me. The 21 day number becoming widespread, in my opinion, has been people doing their best with limited information. But we can do better.

The biggest study to date (analysis of 82 people) found that the average number of days for making a new habit was more like 66, and it varied a lot, ranging from 18 to 254 days.

Yes, a 30 day challenge can be fun,  can be a great way to reconnect with old pasttimes or try something new. But I don’t recommend going in thinking there’s evidence that your fantabulous 30-day challenge will make the habit stick. If it does, it will have more to do with you than the number of days you did it.

Myth 3. This is the perfect time of year to change my habits.

When it’s dark early and late, cold outside many places on the Northern hemisphere, everything in you likely wants to rest, and you’re still in the midst of the food-based holiday gridlock? Winter is a challenging time.

And no matter when you do decide to, how will you address the reality that you’re a human, and as a human you might (and likely will, and likely should) fall off the idealized wagon of what you have? You might eat pizza again. You might stay up past 10 PM. Bacon is really f*cking hard to give up. 

Can you set your goals in a way that will acknowledge that possibility, and give yourself permission to slip up? Relapse is a thing; it’s a part of why, as mentioned before, most people who make resolutions don’t stick with them. Going back to the new habit after a slip-up is a big part of the work. This piece from the National Institutes of Health has a great discussion of stages of change in health behaviors.

Myth 4: There’s a magic formula to change habits.

Sadly, there’s not. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, points out that there are thousands of formulae that depend on the person, the habit, and the situation. He wrote a great post about the steps on this post on his website and his interview on NPR goes into great depth on the topic.

Myth 5: I need to change.

We all change. Whether we change in ways we want to is another thing. But with all the talk of transformation out there, this is a time for you to collect your own data. Is your resolution based on an idea that there’s something that you’re lacking? Where is the idea that you should make a resolution coming from? Are you being sold that you need a “new you” with the New Year because someone told you that? Is the messaging of the resolution that you’re not enough? Remember that people and industries profit from New Year’s resolutions and it costs you, too.

In no way am I saying resolutions are doomed, bad, not worth making or not worth doing. I know people who’ve made dramatic changes because they made New Year’s resolutions. They’re the exception, though. Regardless, go forth with your resolutions, I wish you success in your endeavors. But more than that, I wish you informed decisions.