5 Science-Backed Ways to Meet Your New Year's Resolution

Psychology explains how we can better meet our New Year's resolutions.

Posted Dec 24, 2019

NingZk V./Rawpixel
Source: NingZk V./Rawpixel

The time for New Year's resolutions is upon us. We've crammed all the goals we've put off all year for this very moment. We're going to do it — exercise, eat healthily, learn to swim, start saving money. The time is now!

And yet, when we look back at our resolutions of New Year's past, we may realize that we don't have the greatest track record of meeting our goals. We're not alone. In a study of 3,000 people, only 12% ended up meeting their New Year's resolution. 

But why?

Because we didn't use science! Here are five ways to meet your New Year's resolutions, backed by science. For each tip, I'll also discuss how to apply the tip in the real world, using the resolution of wanting to exercise more as an example. 

1. Don't commit to a goal; commit to a specific behavior. Research finds that when we commit to something more specific than abstract, we are more likely to achieve our goal. We must think through the when, where, and how of achieving our goal. We can schedule into our calendars the specific times we'll be taking part in the goal (when), identify what we will do specifically to meet our goal (what), and how we will go about doing it.

Example: Instead of setting a goal to "exercise more" or even to "lose weight," we should commit to "going to the gym on Monday morning" or "walking to work on Wednesdays." 

2. Break the goal up into many mini-goals. A major reason we don't meet our goal is that it is unrealistic. We are more likely to meet our goals when they are smaller and more manageable, research finds. This makes our goal less intimidating and gives us a sense of achievement along the way.  

Example: I break up the goal of "exercising three times a week" into working out once a week for January, twice a week for February, and three times a week for March, and maintaining this schedule for April onward. Each month, I achieve the satisfaction of meeting a mini-goal. 

3. Work at your goal with a friend. This tip capitalizes on human psychology: we social creatures like to do what is expected of us (we conform to social norms) and we especially don't like to let down people who are close to us. So whatever your goal is, ask a friend if they want to achieve it with you. For example, if you want to learn a new language, schedule weekly "language dates" with a friend. 

Example: I invite my friend for a weekly walk after work on Mondays (staying specific). 

4. Create a sense of intrinsic reward. When something is intrinsically rather than extrinsically rewarding, we enjoy it because it makes us feel good, not because we stand to gain something from it. For example, working hard in school affirms our identity as a high achiever (rather than getting us into graduate school, which is extrinsic). Experiencing intrinsic rewards makes us feel better than experiencing extrinsic ones and intrinsic rewards are preferable because they are more immediate and we are more in control of obtaining them.  

Example: I pay attention to how good I feel after every workout. I remind myself of this next time I have to work out to motivate myself. I don't pay attention to how much weight I'm losing, because this is an extrinsic reward that I am not in control of. 

5. Contingency Plan. This involves thinking through all the situations in which you will be tempted to fail at meeting your goal. According to science, creating a contingency plan makes you much more likely to fulfill your goal. This method works, because when you face temptation, you undergo a process of "deliberation" to figure out if you want to forego your goal or not and this deliberation is depleting, leaving you with less self-control to meet your goal. Think through all the situations that might come up and get in the way of your goal, and form a plan in advance. 

Part of contingency planning is planning for hot-cold states. Research finds that people can strongly intend to act in a particular way, but when they find themselves in a particular mood, they no longer act in a way they intended. Ask yourself, what moods will make you less likely to want to complete your goal? And what will you do when you are in these moods? 

Example: "I know that I plan to work out after work on Wednesday, but that I often stay late at work. I will plan to go to the 6 p.m. workout class instead of the 5 p.m. class to accommodate this obstacle if it arises."

"When I feel lazy from lying in bed all day, I rarely want to work out. I'll make sure that I work out first thing in the morning" or, "I'll take a shower to wake myself up and then I'll go work out." 

Note: This article is also posted on my website blog.