The Science of Creating New Year's Resolutions That Work

Use brain and behavioral science research to craft your New Year's resolutions.

Posted Dec 26, 2018

Research shows that people tend to make big life decisions at the first of the year, which gives us New Year Resolutions. This is the right time for changes both large and small.

Instead of following some of the usual folksy advice about how to make and keep New Year's resolutions, you could, instead, use brain and behavioral science to craft New Year's resolutions that will actually work.

Here are some ideas on how to do that.

1. Pick small, concrete actions. "Get more exercise" is not small. "Eat healthier" is not small. This is one reason New Year's resolutions don't work. 

A lot of New Year's resolutions are about habits -- eating healthier, exercising more, drinking less, quitting smoking, texting less, spending more time "unplugged" or any number of other "automatic" behaviors. Habits are automatic, "conditioned" responses.

If it's a habit, and you want a new one, it must be something really small and specific. For example, instead of "Get more exercise," choose "Walk for at least 20 minutes at least four times a week" or "Have a smoothie every morning with kale or spinach in it."

2. Use visual and/or auditory cues. Want to go for that walk everyday? Set up a place in your home where your walking shoes are. Don't put them away in a closet. Put them in a place where you will see them when you get home from work or first thing in the morning. The shoes will act as a visual cue. And/or set an alarm on your phone called "Go for a walk" and have the alarm go off every morning at 7:30 a.m. People become conditioned to auditory and visual cues and that makes it easier for an action to become a habit.

3. Decide what you want, not what you DON'T want. Instead of setting a resolution of "I'm not going to check my email 10 times a day," set it for what you ARE going to do: "I'm going to use "batching and check my email only twice a day." Instead of "I'm going to drink less soda," set the resolution as "I'm going to replace drinking a soda with drinking water." Although this may seem not that different, it's important. It's easier for your brain networks to work on an intention stated in the "affirmative" than it is stated in the "negative."

4. Write a new self-story. The best (and some would say the only) way to get large and long-term behavior change, is by changing your self-story.

Everyone has stories about themselves that drive their behavior. You have an idea of who you are and what’s important to you. Essentially you have a "story" operating about yourself at all times. These self-stories have a powerful influence on decisions and actions.

Whether you realize it or not, you make decisions based on staying true to your self-stories. Most of this decision-making based on self-stories happens unconsciously. You strive to be consistent. You want to make decisions that match your idea of who you are. When you make a decision or act in a way that fits your self-story, the decision or action will feel right. When you make a decision or act in a way that doesn’t fit your self-story you feel uncomfortable.

If you want to change your behavior and make the change stick, then you need to first change the underlying self-story that is operating. Do you want to be more optimistic? Then you'd better have an operating self-story that says you are an optimistic person. Want to join your local community band? Then you'll need a self-story where you are outgoing and musical.

In his book, Redirect, Timothy Wilson describes a large body of impressive research of how stories can change behavior long-term. One technique he has researched is "story-editing":

Write out your existing story. Pay special attention to anything about the story that goes AGAINST the new resolution you want to adopt. So if your goal is to learn how to unplug and be less stressed, then write out a story that is realistic, that shows that it's hard for you to de-stress, for example, that you tend to get overly involved in dramas at home or at work.

Now re-write the story -- create a new self-story. Tell the story of the new way of being. Tell the story of the person who appreciates life, and takes time to take care of him/her-self.

The technique of story-editing is so simple that it doesn’t seem possible that it can result in such deep and profound change. But the research shows that one re-written self-story can make all the difference.

Give it a try. What have you got to lose? This year use science to create and stick to your New Year's resolutions.