It’s that time of year again. This is the year we finally make and stick to those resolutions, for sure. New survey data has shown that almost 75% of American adults are planning on setting some sort of goal for the new year, and over 40% of those goals are focusing on health (1). However, less than 1 in 10 of those people are likely to stick to their resolutions through a full year (2). Thankfully, behavioral science tells us it doesn’t have to be this way. With the proper strategies and mindset, you can improve your chances of pulling off a successful resolution.
Creating and Sticking to Habits
The first and most important step is creating your resolution, or goal. You can’t achieve something if you don’t know what it is you want to achieve! It’s critical that any goal you create is specific. Instead of saying, “I want to go to the gym more,” say “I want to get to the gym at least 2x/week.” Larger goals will need even more specificity. If your goal is to lose 35 pounds by the end of the year, you’ll need to understand the multiple different ways a person can lose weight: increasing activity, decreasing calories, and manipulating what types of nutrients you ingest, just to name a few. Whatever your goal is, take time to think about how you can make it as clear and specific as possible. This will only improve your ability to focus on it.
Also, make sure you understand the “why” of your goal. Are you doing it for yourself, or are you motivated by external forces? External motivation isn’t always bad, but research shows that you’re more likely to achieve goals that are closely linked to your identity, compared to goals that are negatively or neutrally related to your identity (3). In other words, if you already like to play an instrument, you’re better off setting a goal to practice every day for 20 minutes, rather than forcing yourself to do something you hate.
Once you’ve established your goal, you’ll need to figure out the “how” of achieving it. The first step here should be relatively easy if you’ve done a good job making your goal clear. You can create a step-by-step plan to achieve your goal, and create a routine around this. Think about how you can give yourself something to track as well. It can be as simple as writing down how you feel after lifting or what you ate each day, but this will help ground your routine as well as give you a history of all of the progress you’ve made. If you’re trying to get to the gym 3x/week, create a normal time when you’ll go. Placing each training session at the same time of day begins the process of creating a habit, and habits can be critical for improving the likelihood that a person will achieve a goal.
While a 2009 study found that it can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months for a person to form a habit, the benefits of habits are clear (4). New behaviors require a lot of mental capacity to plan and execute, but habits can remove a large amount of that effort by making actions automatic. A 2015 review of studies researching habits showed the power of automatic habits. Across multiple studies, habits minimize the amount of self-control a person needs to engage in. Habits can also help you avoid the common avoidance thoughts we’ve all had, rationalizing why we don’t need to stick to our plans (5). Once you can automate a behavior, you’re more likely to do it frequently and less likely to try to avoid it.
Once you’ve created your routines, you can employ a few more strategies to stick to them. Develop a system of accountability for yourself to stay on trackl. Try to find someone to go after this goal with you, or just tell the people you’re close with that you have an objective you’re trying to reach. Studies have shown more success for individuals who involve their close social circle for support while attempting to lose weight (6). Generally, these studies consider positive social support as beneficial, but some people prefer competition as a motivator. Placing a bet with someone who you know would love to cash the winnings can help keep focused, if that’s your sort of thing. Also, having a hard end date on your goal can make it more real. If you’d like to be more consistent running, consider signing up for a half-marathon in a few months time. That ticking clock can be another source of motivation.
Finally, remember to be forgiving with yourself. You can’t be perfect, and it’s practically unavoidable that you’ll miss a day here or there. It’s better to understand that ahead of time, and build that into your plan and your mindset. One missed day doesn’t mean you’re off the wagon, it just means you missed a day. You can buy yourself credit for those inevitable missed days by giving a full effort every other day.
All of these strategies are meant to give you a framework. Everyone is different, and the path to everyone’s goals will be different too. Consider these as strong suggestions, but also make them work for you. Being understanding and flexible will only help you on your Resolution journey, and the skills you learn completing a new goal will be widely applicable in the future. Find your goal, develop a plan, and get to work!
- Choi, Catherine. “New Year’s Resolutions Statistics.” Finder.com, 18 Dec. 2019, www.finder.com/new-years-resolution-statistics.
- “New Year’s Resolution Statistics (2020 Updated).” Discover Happy Habits, 13 Jan. 2020, discoverhappyhabits.com/new-years-resolution-statistics/.
- Berkman, Elliot T. “The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change.” Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, vol. 70, no. 1, Mar. 2018, pp. 28–44, 10.1037/cpb0000094.
- Lally, Phillippa, et al. “How Are Habits Formed: Modelling Habit Formation in the Real World.” European Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 40, no. 6, 16 July 2009, pp. 998–1009, citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.695.830&rep=rep1&type=pdf, 10.1002/ejsp.674.
- Galla, Brian M., and Angela L. Duckworth. “More than Resisting Temptation: Beneficial Habits Mediate the Relationship between Self-Control and Positive Life Outcomes.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 109, no. 3, 1 Sept. 2015, pp. 508–525, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4731333/, 10.1037/pspp0000026. Accessed 4 Apr. 2020.
- Wing, Rena R., and Robert W. Jeffery. “Benefits of Recruiting Participants with Friends and Increasing Social Support for Weight Loss and Maintenance.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, vol. 67, no. 1, 1999, pp. 132–138, pdfs.semanticscholar.org/00ac/3135b72dd1ff5d9ba1df3b7b80d122d80047.pdf, 10.1037/0022-006x.67.1.132.