The science of New Year’s resolutions

Una discusses the historical origins of New Year’s resolutions, why we fail to keep them and how can we successfully reach our long term goals in general.


The institution that is the New Year’s Resolution is not just a convenient creation of the fad diet connoisseur or the Nicorette distributing companies. The concept of beginning one’s year on the ‘right foot’ stems back to Babylonian times, when the polytheistic rulers of the Mediterranean four thousand years ago made promises to their almighty gods in return for good fortune throughout the year. The Romans followed a similar concept, by making promises to their god Janus and the month ‘January’ is called after him. In the Christian faith, the resolution phenomenon is echoed by their liturgical season, Lent. But should we follow in these “correct footsteps” of our ancestors or is it more worth our while to not even attempt to halt the habits, pull the plug on the patterns or to adjourn the addictions?

New Year’s Resolutions are notoriously known for being unsuccessfully followed through on by their pursuers. In fact, they are so ineffective that the term ‘Fail Friday’ has been coined for Friday the 24th of January of this year. This date has been proven statistically to be the day by which most people break their New Year’s resolutions. The key to making a solid resolution lies in the methodology of George T. Doran. In 1981, Doran devised the SMART goal system for a Management Review.

The premise of the system is to set achievable goals, or SMART goals. S stands for specific; the goal needs to be precise. For example, stating that you’re going to improve your grades this semester isn’t a specific target but saying that you wish to upgrade your 2:2 in Thermodynamics to a 2:1 is.

M represents measurable, meaning you can tell whether you’ve achieved the objective you’ve set or not. A is for attainable. It’s the devil’s advocate on your shoulder explaining why you’re not going to make it to the Moon and back, but you might just squeeze in a visit to that exhibition you’re mad to see in the National Gallery across the road. R denotes relevant; a goal that you have the necessary skills to attain or perhaps a goal that aids you in achieving a more ambitious one. Finally, T means time-bound. It is imperative to specify to a time frame in which you wish to achieve your goal, otherwise there is a risk that you will constantly postpone it.

It is comforting to realise that it is better to set a goal following the SMART mnemonic than to aim too high. It’s always tempting when you’re compiling a to-do list to run away with yourself. Much easier said than done, however. On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for starting your resolutions in February.

When to start?

Think about it. January 1st – you’re probably still at home and haven’t taken those fleece pyjamas and fluffy socks off for three days now, the tin of Roses remains strategically placed on the coffee table in the sitting room, and there’s that bottle of Baileys you got as a present from your aunt that you simply have to finish, and realistically, you have two episodes left to watch on that Netflix Original and you’re not a quitter.

So start in February. Don’t be one of the 92% of people who fail to maintain their resolution. By analysing the top ten most commonly made resolutions it seems that they fail to pass the SMART goal system immediately, with “lose weight” taking the top spot and the majestically ironic, “get organised” in at number two.

Don’t inundate yourself with any more than three resolutions. One resolution is the optimal number. To enhance your motivation, compile a list of pros and cons and keep it handy when you’re tempted to wander off course. It’s also highly advisable to share your resolutions to others. According to a study carried out by the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania, people who explicitly make resolutions are ten times more likely to attain their goals than those who don’t explicitly make resolutions.

The psychology behind achieving long-term change boils down to behavioural addiction. Often, people fall victim to ‘False Hope Syndrome’, which causes us to have unrealistic expectations about the ease of changing our behaviour. A rather methodological way of looking at combatting poor behaviours or habits, is by classical conditioning, a theory exemplified by the famous ‘Little Albert Test’ in which a young baby was taught to fear furry objects.

Classical conditioning involves the learning of a new behaviour via a process of association. Using this principle, drugs such as Varencline have been developed which induce nausea when the body begins to yearn after a cigarette. Over time, the body will reject the cravings because of classical conditioning, i.e. that it has been conditioned to oppose Nicotine hankerings. A similar example is seen with nail varnishes designed to stop people from biting their nails. The varnishes are sharply flavoured which leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth every time they try to bite their nails.

It seems cruel, but classical conditioning can certainly be utilised to your advantage, in particular with cases that feel like Everest to climb. Pair behavioural therapy with SMART goals and hopefully, you will not ‘Fail Friday’ and instead be throwing back Thursday to a time when ‘five a day’ was your average daily consumption of Maguire’s chicken rolls!

Illustration by Daniel Tatlow-Devally.

Una Harty

Úna is a third year Nanoscience student and Trinity Life editor for Trinity News.