Find it hard to make New Year’s resolutions stick? You’re not alone. Here’s your ultimate guide to changing habits in the long run, no matter what month you start

When it comes to new beginnings, 1st January can feel like a natural place to start and why many of us turn to New Year’s resolutions to put plans in place.

From losing weight to exercising more, drinking less and dieting, there are some common themes that do the rounds. And, while they can be helpful for focussing the mind, it turns out that they may not be the best thing for changing habits in the long run. We seem to struggle to make them stick, in fact, according to a YouGov survey exploring how Brits got on with the resolutions that they made in 2020, only a quarter kept all of them and 23% ‘failed entirely’.

So why the relatively low success rate? “They’re often about giving up or restricting things in your life (such as not drinking alcohol on weekdays or quitting sugar),” comments Dr Jessamy Hibberd, psychologist, member of the British Psychological Society and author of The Imposter Cure: How to stop feeling like a fraud and escape the mind-trap of imposter syndrome. “January’s a tough enough month without adding strict resolutions that you struggle to stick to at the best of times.”

The pressure to see through New Year’s resolutions can sometimes end up feeling like more of a hindrance than a help. Want to make a change that lasts beyond January? Here’s your guide for making new habits stick whether you’re starting at the beginning, middle or end of the year.

Make a positive change

According to Mintel’s 2022 Global Consumer Trends Report, ‘enjoyment everywhere’ is something a lot of us will be seeking. Completely understandable after the last couple of years we’ve all had! This can act as a useful starting point when it comes to making goals that enrich, rather than drain your life. “Resolutions work best when their aim is to make a positive change,” says Dr Hibberd.

She recommends thinking about your hopes, dreams and goals, or the new things that you want to do or try out, places you'd like to visit, work goals or people you'd like to see. “It feels like you’re gaining something that way, which is far better at motivating you than ‘giving up’ something or placing restrictions on yourself.”

Keep things simple

Does anyone else suffer from resolution overwhelm? We definitely find that we can sometimes spread ourselves a bit too thin when it comes to our new year objectives, which can be a fast track ticket to them fizzling out within a few weeks. To avoid this, Dr Hibberd recommends keeping your goals simple to ensure that they’re achievable. “Take time making them; if you make them too hastily they may only reflect how you were feeling at that time,” she adds.

Avoid letting the time of year make you feel like you have to make a change - do it on your own terms. “Don't add too many rules - there's no need to start them exactly on the 1st or to have to do them 100% of the time,” says Dr Hibberd.

Within reach vs out of reach

Want to get fitter? Setting your goals within or out of reach can make all the difference. It’s the main reason why so many of us find it really hard to stick to New Year’s resolutions around exercise, says personal trainer and founder of That Girl London, Christina Howells (MSc Sport Psychology, BSc Exercise Science). “We often set the goalposts way too high and soon find ourselves unable to commit to it or not enjoying our new regime.”

Be wary of slogans and promises that accompany ‘get fit quick’ packages. They may be catchy, but they’re not all that sustainable. “I don't believe there’s such a thing as, say, ‘six weeks to a new you,’” says Christina. “If you actually make the six weeks, then what? Often these programs are intense and don't always fit well into your day or week. Developing an exercise habit takes practice and consistency - it’s not about ‘all or nothing,’ but rather making it part of your long-term routine.”

Break it down

Wondering how to change your daily habits? Breaking your goals down into digestible chunks could be a good idea so that they’re clearer (plus easier to tick off too!). “I often tell clients - ‘Think small for big results’ - a tiny change in your behavior won’t transform your life overnight. But turn that behaviour into a habit that you perform every day and it absolutely can lead to big changes.”

How long does it take to change a habit? The jury appears to still be out on that one. It can differ from person to person and depends on the habit you’re looking to develop. Rather than making yourself stick to a strict timeline, focus on repetition, routine and as Christina reiterates, consistency instead. “Doing little things in a small way consistently over time in the long-term yields the biggest results and increases your chances of making a lifestyle change.”

Find what works for you

Is one of your main goals to eat more healthily? Redefine what that means to you, suggests nutritional therapist, Eve Kalinik. The rigidity that can sometimes come with New Year’s resolutions makes ones around healthy eating harder to stick to in her experience. “It’s really the main side effect of diet culture that teaches us that in order to ‘eat healthy’ we have to be regimented and restrictive,” she says. “In my opinion ‘healthy eating’ isn’t about restrictions, fads, detoxes and diets, but to find some balance that allows us to have the foods we really enjoy in the context of an overall unprocessed and whole foods diet.”

Eve also highlights how resolutions about healthy eating can sometimes ignore the bigger picture. “The other issue is being too reductionist about what it means to eat healthily and thinking that we only need to focus on what we’re eating to make healthier food choices when there are SO many other factors that can contribute to this. Emotional and psychological triggers can play a huge part in this, so if we don’t address these along with the food we are eating, then we can never really build a positive relationship with our food, or our bodies come to that.”

Go for quality over quantity

The biggest mistake Christina sees when people embark on a new fitness regime? “They can often go in hard thinking that the more intensely they workout, the better the results will be.”

She recommends adopting a mantra of “smarter not harder,” by adding in small, sustainable changes to your weekly routine. “Try adding daily movement into your natural schedule - moving commutes of course are the easiest to implement,” she says.

The first three to four weeks can be the trickiest in her experience and so she recommends planning exercise into your day to provide a helping hand. “It may be a class, a lunchtime walk, focussing on 10 minutes of mobility exercises one morning and then 20 minutes of bodyweight exercises the next. Or maybe it's a new skill such as climbing or dancing. When you plot it into your diary, you can make it fit your lifestyle.”

Reframe ‘failure’

When we fall short of the lofty expectations that we set for ourselves, it can sometimes be hard to get over. If we’re more flexible with setting our goals, it can help soften the blow. “I think it’s really important to think about what ‘fall off track' means as it comes back to the same notion that we need to be following a rigid plan or regime,” says Eve. A more balanced approach can help with maintaining a healthy relationship with food. “If we look towards a more holistic and inclusive approach to our food that features the foods we really enjoy, we tend to have much less of an extreme relationship with them and can enjoy them as part of our diet.

“With this mentality it means we never fall off track, but continue on a more sustainable, consistent and happier road to developing a healthy and balanced relationship with our food and overall wellbeing.”

Enjoy the journey as well as the destination

Often when we make resolutions, we can get so wrapped up in the end goal that we miss the good points of getting there. These could be the greater amounts of energy we have in the evenings to spend with family as a result of incorporating more movement into our day for example, a better night’s sleep or all-important life lessons. “How you get there and what you learn along the way is as important as the destination and it's ok to make mistakes - it's just part of the process,” says Dr Hibberd.

Reserve the right to change your mind

One of the biggest problems with New Year’s resolutions is the often self-inflicted rigidness that comes with them. It can feel like there’s no wiggle room to realise that a different path may be better. “Your goals don't need to be set in stone or last forever,” Dr Hibberd reminds us. “I always reserve the right to change my mind! If it's not working or you don't like it, you can be pleased you tried it, but know it's not for you.” It’s all part and parcel of the journey mentality that Dr Hibberd mentioned before.

Swap self-criticism for self-compassion

Next time that you feel the urge to delve into some negative self-talk if you feel you’ve fallen short of your expectations, don’t. Not only will it make you feel worse, but it can make it harder to get back on track. 

Research shows that self-criticism makes you less effective at implanting new coping strategies,

Dr Hibberd

Try a compassionate approach instead. “It might sound strange, but research shows one of the most effective things you can do is forgive yourself. Self-criticism is linked to negative feelings, so if you reduce these (through forgiveness), it puts you in a better position to move forward.”

Being kinder to ourselves? That’s one new habit we definitely hope sticks.