new year

At the start of the New Year, people often take time to reflect on the past year and make resolutions for the coming one. However, many of these resolutions are not successful, particularly if they are too ambitious or require a lot of sustained motivation. For instance, it can be especially challenging to stick to resolutions related to weight loss. It’s no surprise that gym memberships often increase at the beginning of the year, but as the excitement of the New Year wears off, many people struggle to maintain their motivation and give up on their resolutions. This pattern of starting new habits and the difficulties in maintaining them can provide valuable insights for brands across all verticals.

A time of large-scale behaviour change 

Why the New Year, why not the 17th of February? While it may seem arbitrary that most people decide to collectively change their behaviour on the same day, insights from behavioural science can shed light on what’s happening in the background. 

When people feel that a new period is starting, they often sense that they can start from a blank slate and thus are motivated to change their behaviour. It can happen at various points during the year, but the New Year is a particularly common one as it is widely celebrated. This principle is often referred to as the “Fresh start effect” based on the work by Milkman and colleagues. They also uncovered that other important temporal landmarks such as starting a new job, moving house, or a wedding anniversary can all have the same effect, implying that it doesn’t need to be an event that is collectively shared. 

However, as social animals, we often look to others to establish what the appropriate behaviour is in our given social context. This can make it difficult to resist the pressure to make New Year’s resolutions and to start self-improvement habits, as the start of a New Year is often seen as a time for change.  

The time of reflection that comes at the end of a period allows individuals to spend time thinking about any potential mismatch between the current and desired self. This is the fuel behind our desire to change, however, we often fail to appreciate that our motivation is a limited resource, and that long-term behaviour change is hard to achieve. 

A collective failure 

Just as the reasons for collective behaviour change are rooted in behavioural sciences, so too are the reasons for its wide-spread failure.  

One of the main reasons why people fail to meet their resolutions can be explained by the hot and cold empathy gap. Simply put, the headspace we find ourselves in when we make resolutions, is completely different to the one we experience when the time comes to execute them. So, the motivation that we feel to going to the gym when making the resolution may not be there to the same extent on a rainy day on February 1st. 

We are also good at setting over-ambitious goals whilst failing to estimate how long it would take to reach them. These principles are often referred to as the optimism bias and planning fallacy.  

Finally, what many fail to appreciate is that the motivation we feel at the end of the year is a limited resource and it evaporates by itself. When facing unrealistic goals and not seeing the results, the motivation can leave us in no time, leaving us often in a worse place than we were at the end of the year. 

Insights for brands  

Brands are in a unique position to gain market share at the beginning of each year due to consumers trying to kickstart new behaviours. Several behavioural science techniques can be used by brands to help consumers follow through on their resolutions, some of which include: 

  1. Mental availability: Many consumers start the New Year feeling motivated to start-a-fresh, meaning that they will be more willing to try new brands in an attempt to keep up with their New Year’s resolutions. It’s important for brands to become front-of-mind during this time through marketing campaigns that successfully build and refresh memory structures. Marketers should also keep in mind that where your ad is seen is just as important as what it says, both of which will have an impact on consumers remembering your brand.  
  2. Commitment devices: The key to making a behaviour stick is consistency, and commitment devices help with just that. They come in all shapes and sizes but essentially they are a way for individuals to “lock” themselves into a certain behaviour. Often, it’s individuals themselves seeking commitment devices (whether they do it consciously or not), and these can take the form of telling a family member a new goal, scheduling a workout with a friend, or even paying for a subscription to a service such as a gym membership or healthy meal box delivery kit. However, brands can also play a big role in providing commitment devices to their consumers. For example, take Duolingo where they provide commitment contracts by asking individuals to pledge how much time they want to spend each week learning a language. In turn, this gives users accountability and a reminder of the goals that they themselves have set. Brands can be creative in how they use commitment devices to help consumers achieve their resolutions. 
  3. Habit stacking: Brands know that consumers are in a “New Year, New Me” mode of thinking, which means they can connect their products and services with current trends and interests. Habit stacking is a great way to do this. This is where brands can integrate a new behaviour alongside a current behaviour or habit that consumers are already doing. Experts say that our everyday routines are the perfect opportunity for new habits to piggyback on to. Brands should take the time to explore their consumers’ current habits to better understand how to introduce their product or service as something that will complement an existing behaviour. This can be done at all times of year, but it is especially opportune at the beginning of the year whilst consumers are forming new habits. Take for example a toothpaste company who is able to link dental health and hygiene to overall health, a booming topic at the start of the year. 


The New Year is an opportune time for behavioural change, with many individuals committing to new habits. Brands can play a pivotal role in nurturing these habits and also help consumers to maintain them. If you’d like to learn how your brand can build and grow habits with consumers, get in touch with someone from the team today.  

Daniel Hegman & Lauren Stephenson - Associate Consultants

Author:Daniel Hegman & Lauren Stephenson - Associate Consultants

At Behave, Daniel and Lauren help clients develop innovative and effective ways of reaching their current and prospective customers. They use leading behavioural technologies to understand consumer attitudes, motivations and behaviours to close the gap between what individuals say they do, and what they actually do.