New Year’s resolutions are an annual ritual of setting intentions for self-betterment, and health behavior goals — such as improving healthy eating and physical activity — are among the most popular. Unfortunately, failing to stick to those new goals is so common that it has become a cliché.
This is backed by research evidence. Studies have repeatedly shown that over half of people who form health behavior intentions fail to enact them.
There are caveats to this statistic, of course. Short-term health behavior goals are more likely to be enacted than long-term, and those who are returning to a pattern of behavior they used to practice are more likely to follow through with their intentions compared to those who are adopting a new health behavior.
It’s important to note that having an intention to change behavior is an essential first step. Few people regularly engage in healthy behaviors without those initial good intentions. Sticking to health behavior goals, however, is the critical factor.
Why do we struggle with health behavior goals?
Self-regulation is an extensive research topic in psychology. As a professor of health psychology, my research focuses on understanding the “intention-behavior gap” in physical activity, and testing interventions that may help close this gap.
My own research, and studies from my colleagues, has shown evidence that difficulty in following through on intentions often comes from two sources. The first is strategic challenges, which are flawed approaches to thinking about goals and behavior. The second is basic human tendencies when faced with what psychologists call approach/avoidance conflict: when something is appealing and unappealing at the same time.
In terms of strategic challenges, the details of the goal itself can be one of the first indicators of whether someone will struggle. For example, the intention to engage in physical activity is often based on desired long-term outcomes (such as weight control, fitness and reducing the risks of chronic disease) without due consideration of the time and effort required to perform regular physical activity itself.