Why ‘new year, new me’ doesn’t work

3 min read

Do you remember what your resolutions for 2020 were, and did you achieve them? 

If you didn’t, don’t worry – you’re not alone. According to studies done by clinical psychologist John Norcross, most people don’t manage to keep their New Year resolutions. Only 8% last until the end of the year.

So why is it so hard for us to keep our resolutions, and what can we do to improve our success rate? 

First, let’s look at why we make resolutions – to change our behaviour and become better versions of ourselves. However, breaking away from existing behavioural habits and inculcating better ones is much harder than it seems. Although we’d like to imagine we always make choices rationally, we often aren’t consciously aware of what influences our behaviour.

We may not think much of it, but habits are more powerful than we give them credit for. Researchers Bentler and Speckart suggest that it is not our intention, but rather our habits, that are the better predictor of our future behaviour. When our old habits are especially strong, studies have also shown that our intentions have much less impact on our behaviour.

If so, what does science say about how we can break our old habits? 

According to behavioural scientist David Neal, habits are context and cue specific. The cues around us trigger our habits – what that means is that your habits are much easier to break when you’re in a novel situation, like living in a different country or new house. This is because your usual cues and contexts aren’t there to trigger your old habits.

But changing our cues and contexts is not exactly feasible. To break habits in your current context, you need to consistently exert self-control until new habits are formed.

And it turns out that we have limited self-control. Researchers have found that individuals generally have a finite pool of will-power to deal with social influence, daily tasks, regulate emotions, manage work, and other regular behaviours. This pool is emptied a little every time you use it, resulting in self-control fatigue. At the end of a regular day, we have little self-control left to consciously and intentionally evaluate and regulate our old behaviours.

The good news is that this can probably be replenished temporarily through glucose intake, rest and sleep. So if you don’t succeed at first, take a break and try again. Over time, it is possible to train ourselves to develop better self-control.

What are your resolutions for 2021? From us here at the Science Centre, we encourage you to stay curious in the new year. Here’s wishing everyone a good year ahead!

Written by Tabitha Gan
Edited by Zi Shan
Illustration by Ai Cing Lee

Diamond, D. (2013). Just 8% of People Achieve Their New Year’s Resolutions. Here’s How They Do It. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/dandiamond/2013/01/01/just-8-of-people-achieve-their-new-years-resolutions-heres-how-they-did-it/?sh=700efbd0596b

Bentler, P. M., & Speckart, G. (1981). Attitudes” cause” behaviors: A structural equation analysis. Journal of personality and social psychology, 40(2), 226.

Neal, D. T., Wood, W., Wu, M., & Kurlander, D. (2011). The pull of the past: When do habits persist despite conflict with motives?. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(11), 1428-1437.

Burkley, E., Anderson, D., & Curtis, J. (2011). You wore me down: Self‐control strength and social influence. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(7), 487-499.

Gailliot, M. T., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Maner, J. K., Plant, E. A., Tice, D. M., … & Schmeichel, B. J. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(2), 325.

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