According to Dr Oaten, the key to lasting change is avoiding overambitious goals, however well intentioned these may be.
“When you’re talking about making a start on New Year’s resolutions, the big thing is not to take on too many things at any one time,” says Dr Oaten, who is also founder of Behave Yourself Consulting, which promotes behaviour change, leadership strategies and wellbeing in the corporate world. “The moment you’re trying to control 20 different behaviours at once, you’re setting yourself up to fail.
“So what we often see is at the start of the year, is people say they’re going to eat right, give up smoking, go the gym, go to bed early, and they’re going to embark on all manner of behavioural change, which is fantastic, but first they really should just concentrate and conquer one behaviour.
“Because the good thing is when you do that with one behaviour, you normally have flow-on effects; other things will improve as a function of that, and you’re also learning some really important skills about self-control.”
In research published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Dr Oaten and Prof Ken Cheng established that after putting subjects through a two-month exercise regime, participants not only reaped the physical benefits of their activity, but reported significant decreases in negative behaviours such as smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, eating junk food, spending impulsively and losing their temper.
So the message: choose the one healthy habit that you want to form, or bad habit that you want to break, and focus on that.