New year, new you

Whether they promise to make it to those 8:30 a.m. lectures, spend less money on Starbucks cappuccinos, or visit the gym more often, students make New Year’s resolutions like everyone else. However, as they settle back into classes, it can be difficult to prioritize their new goals. Understanding the best methods of breaking or making a habit may be the key to successfully completing a New Year’s resolution.

The most common New Year’s resolutions, such as cutting down on screen time or saving money, often entail replacing negative behaviours with new, positive ones. Despite this yearly commitment to personal improvement, the majority of those who make these resolutions are unsuccessful: Research suggests that only eight per cent of people actually achieve their set goals. In practice, many get frustrated, forget, or simply lose interest throughout the year.

Due to this low success rate, many disregard the effectiveness of setting resolutions. Meredith Charney, U1 Arts, has found that her New Year’s resolutions tend to fail when she attempts to alter a habit for personal growth without considering practical constraints. In her experience, shortly after the beginning of January, the novelty of a resolution wears off, and her motivation fades.

“New Year’s approaches and people think about what they can change. Instead of just independently deciding to change,” Charney said. “It’s a temporary motivator.”

According to experts, the frustration Charney and many other goal-setters experience is driven by the unrealistic expectations that they set for themselves. Richard Koestner, a psychology professor at McGill, specializes in goal-setting, self regulation, and internalization processes and has found that resolutions are most effective when broken down into measurable goals. Koestner’s research suggests that goals must be connected to one’s own interests and values.

Many students have found that, in their own practice, Koestner’s research holds merit. In her experience, Lily Zhang, U1 Arts, has discovered that setting realistic goals lays the foundation for making sustainable lifestyle changes. Zhang found that she was more successful when she focused on smaller, more manageable objectives—a tactic she is using to keep her 2019 resolution.  

“I decided not to be too focused on concrete numbers,” Zhang said. “For example, [instead of resolving to] hit the gym five times a week [… this year]  I choose to focus on making smaller changes in my life, like buying more vegetables and fruits [….] I’ll be able to keep these resolutions throughout the year and then look back and be proud of what I have accomplished by making little changes over time.”

To improve their chances of success, psychologists suggest that goal-setters focus their attention on establishing an achievable regimen. Studies show that daily repetition to the point that behaviour becomes second nature has proven to be a successful strategy for achieving lifestyle changes. This could mean performing the task in question at least once a day or at the same time every day for consistency. Urvashi Singh, U1 Science, has found that two weeks of repetition can make a habit become an acquired behaviour.

“I think making a habit takes 14 days for me,” Singh said. “If I do something for 14 days, I start liking it [….] I think I like the idea of determination and self-control.”

Yet, others do not experience such immediate success—an obstacle which can feel frustrating and disheartening. Depending on the difficulty of the habit one is trying to form, research suggests that it takes anywhere from two to eight months for a habit to become second nature. Though this delayed satisfaction is often discouraging, with continued support from friends and family and by visualizing success, it can be easier to persist through challenging periods and change habits.

For some, the new year is the optimal time to make these changes. For others, it is an ongoing process. Regardless, it is important to understand that no change is immediate or impossible.

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