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Why New Year’s health resolutions are a waste of time

They tend to be inherently self-critical and stem from magical thinking that with one big change your life will be transformed

I hope you have had a great festive season and are all set for 2024. This time of year is synonymous with making resolutions to do better – many of which focus on health.

However, my somewhat contrarian advice is: don’t bother.

Why? Well, a recent Forbes Health poll found that some 62 per cent of those surveyed said they feel uncomfortably pressured to set a new year’s resolution. The most popular goals identified were: improving fitness; improving mental health: losing weight; and improving diet. Less popular aims include travelling more, meditating regularly and drinking less alcohol.

All very noble aspirations I agree, but in reality a waste of time. The fact is that only about 10 per cent of us who make new year’s resolutions successfully implement lasting change. Nine out of 10 of us fail, which can be significantly discouraging and may even undermine future efforts to improve our health.


It can also be an expensive mistake. You sign up for a new gym membership in the first week in January, make a handful of visits and never darken the gymnasium door for the remainder of the year.

The problem with many resolutions is that they tend to be inherently self-critical and stem from a sort of magical thinking that with one big change your life will be transformed. It’s so easy to pick on a behaviour that you feel guilty about and roll it into a false promise of, “if you change this one thing, you’ll change everything”.

Younger people in particular are more realistic about what they need to do to accomplish lasting change. Some millennials and Gen Zers are abandoning the new year resolution tradition, opting instead to work on themselves year-round. Bombarded by new year TikToks detailing workout routines, and how to change your body in a month, they are recognising a groupthink based on other people trying to become the best versions of themselves. It puts a massive pressure on them, feeling like they should do the same.

But a TikTok driver of “big boom” change is simply not sustainable. Small, incremental change is a better bet. Coupled with a more forgiving and less rigid attitude- so that if you miss going for a run one day, you simply, without self-criticism, try again the next day. And moving away from January being the only time for health change is much better for our mental health.

A stepped approach is more personal and less of an in-your-face experience of sudden resolution

Another helpful move when planning change is to focus on reflection rather than resolution. Reflecting on your accomplishments in 2023 is an excellent starting point. And research shows that one of the best ways to change behaviour and form a new habit is to bundle it with an existing behaviour – what in the science of habit formation is called “stacking”. For example, adding steps to your daily commute is a better way to add exercise to your day rather than trying to carve out a separate time for a dedicated walk.

Reflection also facilitates self-awareness. Tying this awareness into the science behind the stages of change can really help. Contemplation comes first – acknowledging that there is a problem but we are not yet ready, or are lacking confidence to make a change. Next up comes the preparation and determination stage – when we are getting ready to change. Action/willpower is the stage where we are motivated to change our behaviour and are actively looking for techniques to make things happen.

Finally, comes the maintenance phase where we look to sustain our new habit and avoid sliding back to previously unhelpful ones. A stepped approach is more personal and less of an in-your-face experience of sudden resolution.

And a sense of humour is always a helpful grease for change:

What is a new year resolution? Something that goes in one year and out the other.

Have a good one.