We’re all creatures of habit. And at this time each year many of us make, and then quickly break, New Year’s resolutions to be healthier. But where are we going wrong? Could behavioural science help us make better resolutions, and stick to them?
We asked Dr Becca Beeken, senior research associate at UCL, what science says about boosting the chance of living more healthily in 2017 and beyond.
Why do New Year’s resolutions matter?
More than 4 in 10 cases of cancer in the UK could be prevented. And although there’s no guarantee against cancer, you can stack the odds in your favour by making small changes to the things you do each day, such as what you eat and drink.
“January certainly can be a good time to change behaviour in terms of it being seen as a fresh start,” says Beeken.
“It’s a good time to reflect on what’s happened the year before and to think about what you might like to do differently in the New Year.”
But this renewed outlook on health is often accompanied by some unhelpful information around potential quick fixes.
The truth is that fad diets and extreme get fit quick regimes don’t usually work. That’s because they’re too difficult to stick to in the long-term. Instead, Beeken says that building healthy habits into our day-to-day lives could be the best way to make them stick.
What are habits?
“Habits are things you do automatically because you’ve done them frequently in the same context in the past,” says Beeken. “This repetition creates a mental association between the situation (the cue) and the action.”
“When you encounter that cue in future, then you act automatically.”
According to Beeken this is the process that occurs when we brush our teeth every night before going to bed, or lock our doors when we leave home in the morning.
“Sometimes you forget whether you’ve locked the door or not because it’s so automatic.”
Turning healthy behaviours into habits is therefore a good way to make these changes stick. At first it can be hard but the more often you act in the same context, the stronger the mental association becomes and the easier it is to do.
The big advantage is that once it’s a habit, you don’t have to think about doing it anymore. Even if your motivation wanes, or you have other priorities to think about, it’s become second-nature.
It’s often more difficult to break old habits than to form new ones. One way of breaking old habits can be to avoid the environmental cue that prompts the behaviour (for example you could walk a different route home from work to avoid a shop where you usually buy unhealthy foods).
But this isn’t always feasible.
So here we’ll focus on making new healthy habits.
Make your resolutions realistic and specific
So where should we start with making resolutions that can become habits?
I think the biggest mistake people make when making New Year’s resolutions is picking things that aren’t realistic
– Dr Becca Beeken
“I think the biggest mistake people make when making New Year’s resolutions is picking things that aren’t realistic,” says Beeken.
“The best predictor of success is adherence – sticking to it. So it could help to think about what your existing lifestyle is like and what can realistically fit into that and keep up over the long term.”
But that’s doesn’t mean you can’t have big ambitions.
“It used to be that we thought it was better to have small goals. But in terms of weight loss there’s emerging evidence that suggests perhaps this isn’t the case.”
Beeken says that the key to success isn’t the scale of the goal, but focussing on specifically how you’re going to achieve it.
“It’s better to say to yourself: ‘I’m going to eat two portions of vegetables with my lunch and my dinner’ rather than just ‘I’m going to eat more fruit and vegetables,’” she says.
It’s also important to make sure you think about how to achieve this. For example, having a plan to buy the vegetables, looking up portion sizes, and how you’re going to prepare them.
In terms of forming habits, research has suggested that picking specific events in the day (for example mealtimes or when you come home from work which might not be a set time) as the triggers for your healthy behaviour can be best, especially in a weekday work context.
“Weekdays, certainly for people who have a Monday to Friday job, tend to have a more consistent routine, and it can be easier to build new habits into that routine,” says Beeken.
“In leisure time there tends to be less routine and you might do things differently day-to-day and that can make things more difficult.”
For example, if you want to be more active you could try taking the stairs instead of the lift every morning on the way to work, or use your lunch break as a chance to go for a 15 minute brisk walk.
How to stick to it
When the initial flurry of good intentions passes in mid-January, it can be hard to stick to the changes you’ve pledged.
And, according to Beeken, there is research here too that can help.
And whether it’s your phone, a calendar, or a notebook by your bed, finding somewhere to track your plans and progress can help.
“Firstly, it reminds you that’s what you’re trying to do,” says Beeken. “Secondly, it can perhaps prompt the behaviour if you have missed it in your usual routine. And, finally, it can be helpful to see the progress that you’re making.”
You’re also more likely to succeed if you make plans for how you’ll tackle challenges.
For example if you’re walking your children to school each morning but it’s raining, making sure you have umbrellas, waterproofs or wellies ready to go can help. Or, if the food provided at work isn’t cheap and healthy, you could get lunch on the way to work to make sure it includes fruit and vegetables.
But what about those days where something inevitably gets in the way? Science says don’t sweat it.
According to the evidence, you probably aren’t any less likely to succeed long-term if you miss a planned walk or healthy snack… as long as you get back to it next time.
“There are always going to be things that don’t quite go to plan but it’s important to get back to doing it as quickly as possible,” says Beeken.
“Try and do it the next day. Don’t see it as a failure; it’s completely normal to have the odd lapse or day that doesn’t work out.”
If things do slip, the challenge is that it might affect how quickly something becomes habit.
“Having lots of days that don’t work out will probably mean that it takes longer for the habit to form because habits are likely to form more quickly the more frequently we do something in that context,” adds Beeken.
So how long will it take for your resolutions to become automatic?
66 – the route to success
It will get easier; you may not have formed a new habit by the end of January but you’ll be well on your way
– Dr Beeken
A study looking at how quickly certain activities – like eating an apple after lunch or doing sit-ups after a morning coffee – became habits showed that unsurprisingly the number of days varied from person to person.
But the average time was 66 days. Not a perfect answer, but this at least gives an idea that you’re looking at months rather than days to make these habits stick.
“It will get easier; you may not have formed a new habit by the end of January but you’ll be well on your way,” says Beeken.
“It might not be completely automatic, but it should be easier than it was at the start of January. It depends on what you’re changing, but if you’re going for a walk or a run every day, over a month you’ll notice improvements in your fitness and how you feel.”
Top tips for weight loss
Many people struggle with their weight and will be focusing on this for their New Year’s resolution. It’s something we should care about because being overweight or obese is the biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking in the UK.
We’ve worked with Beeken and the team at UCL to develop a leaflet using the research and evidence around turning healthy choices in to habits. The 10 Top Tips leaflet can be ordered for free through our website.
This leaflet has now been shown to be as effective at helping people lose weight long-term as the usual support people can get through their GP, which includes a referral to weight management services. This was surprising given it’s a less intense option, making the leaflet (along with a discussion with a nurse to explain how to use it), a low-cost and effective option.
The team at UCL are also recruiting people for a clinical trial to test whether an app version of the leaflet is as effective. If you’re interested in taking part there is information about the trial on their website.
And whatever your New Year’s ‘be healthy’ resolution is, there are more tips and information on our website to help you along the way.
Nikki Smith is a senior health information officer at Cancer Research UK