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The Psychology of New Year Resolutions

First, before I suck you into my writing as most writers have habit to do, I would like to wish you, dear reader and fellow human, a wonderful and happy new year!

Happy New Year to you!

There is something fresh and crisp about the first day of a new year. The lure of a fresh start, a crisp beginning, a slate with no indelible marks in it – yet.

If we are talking about a lunar new year, there is also the inevitable scurrying and bustle to clean our house til every nook and cranny sparkles, we buy new clothes, perhaps fresh bedding, and even go out for a celebratory haircut!

Somehow those latter details tend to be missing from the current celebration in question with not a few of us waking up to an intense hangover and grogginess from having gone to bed at an unearthly hour and/or too much alcohol!

Truly a ripping start to those of us who swore we were going to go dry this year lol.

Which brings me to the topic of today’s mental ramblings: what is it that really ticks behind New Years Resolutions to the point we are celebrating huge success if we make it to the end of January, heck if we even make it to the end of the first seven days!?

Do they serve merely as an illusionary motivational boost taking us to a near psychedelic high before dumping us in the endless dark pit of what-might-have-beens?

As I woke up this morning, yes, also groggy from not alcohol but from having deferred my preferred bedtime by at least six hours, I reflected on this question.

My habitual trend led me wanting to reach out and light up my phone to see if anyone had sent me a New Year’s message, even to check if my article and social media post from yesterday evening got any views likes or comments.

But I held my self back.

Not because I set a reckless resolution to stop using my phone – I’ll talk more about that later or in a future rambling – but because the question turning in my head was exactly this one:

Does our first instinctive action of the first day of the new year in fact set the pace for the rest of the month and hence the rest of the year?

I’m not saying it was rational or realistic but those were the exact words floating in my head.

I picked up a book instead.

How are we setting the pace to the new year?

And this is where the psychology of resolutions come to play. That first gesture also can be very crucial, in particular how we approach it.

Take an example.

When we are trying to break, for example, addictive digital behaviour – we will be talking about the addictive all-absorbing nature of social media, phones, internet at a near future point - that initial break can be very difficult. Duh, that’s obvious you say. And you are correct. But let’s go beneath the surface a little more deeply.

Because it is exactly in those initial moments and the thought processes that go along with them that are so important.

So come with me and mentally put yourself into this following scene:

That initial spontaneous irresistible mindless urge to reach for our phone. First thing in the morning, first of January, with a resolution to cut our phone use.

Believe me that urge can be brutal!

A key to this is first not having your phone within reach or even in full visibility. We are quintessentially lazy by nature, and so on a cold icy winter January 1st morning the thought of having to emerge from under our warm snug duvet can be more than enough motivation (at least for me haha) to put off going to check the phone.

Basically put, on a pain-to-pain ratio, the pain or discomfort of facing the cold is usually greater than the pain or discomfort of not reaching out for our phone.

We win.

In addition the warm comfort of staying under the warm duvet is already a form of reward.

And this is the concept which is so important.

If in the moment of denial or withdrawal you feel pain and this pain is not compensated or replaced with something pleasant, the probability we give in is multiplied.

Which means we need to lean into this further.

Let’s say we love reading, but because of extended phone use, social media, etc, we find ourself endlessly scrolling, and if we do actually pick up a book, within five minutes we are again distracted by the beep of our phone and we all know how that goes. Pretty much like trying to have a deep conversation with someone but being constantly and brutally interrupted. Ok, as I said we will go into depth on that topic in a near future article, but back to the topic at hand.

Hold for a moment that repeated feeling of frustration at not being able even to concentrate to read a book.

And so the night before, just before you go to sleep you put your phone at distance in a little visible space. But you must also do something else.

Take a book you have been wanting to read, and put it next to your pillow.

Obvious, you say again.

Of course, I reply.

But what about the psychology behind this?

Come back to that moment the next morning where you have already decided to stay under your warm snug duvet. Damn it feels wonderful. And as you feel the warm comfort, you feel something hard--

Ok, I’ll leave that to your imagination…

But in whatever direction that takes you – I must follow the PG-rated path for the sake of this article, in that moment, that warmth, that comfort, you also find yourself rediscovering an undivided pleasure of getting lost in a book, turning one page after another, each delightful…

Feel yourself in that moment dear reader, because whatever path you take, whatever thing you are passionate or enjoy doing, if you want a New Year Resolution to actually work in the long run, you must fill those first moments with a feeling of delight and enjoyment.

That initial feeling of pleasure is what will push you forward in the long-term.

If the life change you are making is no alcohol, don’t make that first substitute a boring flat coke, jazz things up and have that first non-alcoholic drink something decadent.

If it is to change your eating habits to seriously improve your health, don’t go serving up a plate of boiled brussel sprouts as your first meal. Ew!!! Make a super healthy meal but make at least that first meal super tasty and delicious.

If you want to get fit and start exercising, make that first workout pleasurable and achievable and enjoyable.

And if you have friends or family in the mix, make each of the above moments happy and memorable. Fill them with laughter and good banter. This is especially precious in the long-term.

Change, especially life change can bring a lot of fear and trepidation. Psychologically we will gravitate towards what is familiar and known, even if it can be behaviours which are damaging us and not good for us. It is how we are wired. It is our default mechanism.

When we make that first step into change, if that first impression is a happy, enjoyable, deeply impressible one, that feeling of enjoyment will attach itself to that new behaviour pattern and we intuitively will want to replicate that again and again.

Add into this too the emotional factor – hence why I indicated above the benefit of adding in family and friends to that initial moment as it is a very powerful way to do this – when we bring in a deep feeling of positive emotion to the mix that positive lasting impression is intensified many times over and we will naturally gravitate towards wanting to repeat that..

This is in fact how addictions are formed in the first place.

What we talk about less frequently is how we can tap into those same psychological pathways and create what should more correctly be termed positive addictions. Rather we call them habits which if we think about is rather a boring insepid thoughtless word.

Whatever you feel comfortable calling it, it is in understanding and learning how to tap into these underlying behaviour patterns that we can multiply our chances of success, not just for the whole year, but in fact for the rest of our lives!

If you have comments or questions, please add them below, or message me privately and where possible I will answer them in a future article.

A happy near year to you!

Peace and love,

RZ 2022 01 01

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