The Science Behind the New Year’s Resolution

Research in the science of motivation suggests that certain strategies can help

Posted Dec 18, 2013

by Amanda Durik, Ph.D., guest contributor

Every year, many of us go through a similar ritual. We identify a New Year’s resolution, pursue it with some vigor for a week or two, and then abandon it for our usual habits. If you listen carefully, you might even hear the soft wheeze of each New Year’s resolution balloon, as another person’s hope for self-improvement deflates. Is there a better way?

It may help to offer an example. Many people will make a New Year’s resolution to quit cigarette smoking. But making the resolution, and managing to quit, are very different things. How does a person manage to change a habit?

Accumulating research in the science of motivation suggests that certain strategies can help people reach their goals over time. Three general strategies may help:

• Connect the desired behavior to core values.

• Prepare in advance for the moment to act.

• Focus initially on progress made.

First, it is helpful to think about the desired behavior in abstract terms, which tends to connect behavior more closely to personal values (Trope & Liberman, 2000).

Any behavior can be thought about at different levels. Behavior can be thought about specifically (such as, put any remaining cigarettes in the garbage) or abstractly (such as, live a healthier life). When people think about their goal-related behaviors more abstractly, their behaviors tend to be viewed as more connected to their personal values.

This is important because when people think about behaviors more abstractly, they find temptations less tempting (Fujita, Trope, Liberman, & Levin-Sagi, 2006). For example, when individuals think about a tempting situation in abstract terms they evaluate the possible temptation (such as eating a piece of cake) more negatively than if they were thinking about it at a specific level. In other words, it might be easier to avoid temptations when focusing on the broader purpose of a New Year’s resolution, rather than on the specific details.

Second, there will be a moment to act on the resolution. When this happens, it is best to have a plan.

It is possible to link anticipated situations with desired behaviors, but the plan needs to be laid out in advance. Individuals can create this link by visualizing the anticipated situation and planning to engage in the behavior when the situation arises (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006). The logic is that the situation, when encountered, can trigger the behavior so that the individual can do it with less effort. A smoker with the resolve to quit might think, “When I feel the urge to grab a cigarette, I’ll grab a piece of gum instead.”

People who are prompted to link specific situations with desired behaviors are more likely to follow through with those behaviors. For example, participants in one study were all taught how to floss their teeth, given dental floss, and encouraged to floss more regularly (Orbell & Verplanken, 2010). Some participants were also encouraged to think about the situation in which they would floss and to plan exactly where and when they would floss. These participants reported flossing more often and used more than twice as much of the researcher-provided dental floss than those who were only encouraged to floss.

Third, when individuals are uncertain of their commitment to an ongoing goal (which is likely to be the case for most New Year’s resolutions), it is better to focus on what has been accomplished (Koo & Fishbach, 2008).

Inherently, goal pursuit requires that there is a difference between the current situation and a desired future situation. During goal pursuit, the difference gets smaller. In this process, it is possible to focus on gains that have already been made or on how much more that needs to be done. For example, the recovering smoker can either focus on how many smoking opportunities have been successfully avoided or dwell on how many more there are to cope with in the future.

When individuals focus on gains that have already been made, they can become more committed to the goal, which can motivate further progress (Koo & Fishbach, 2008). For example, research shows that college students were more motivated to keep studying for non-major courses if they focused on how much they had already studied rather than if they focused on what they still needed to study.

Recognizing progress can solidify feelings of commitment to the goal, make it seem more possible, and encourage further goal pursuit. That said, once fully committed to a goal, it is actually more motivating to focus on what has yet to be accomplished (Koo & Fishbach, 2008).

Without question, breaking old habits and changing behavior is hard, but it’s possible. Strategies are useful when people resolve to make a change, whether it is at the beginning of a new year or any other time. In this process, do what the research says: Connect your resolution to personal values, anticipate the situations and prepare to act, and focus initially on progress made.

Good luck to you, and here’s to an even happier new year!

Amanda Durik is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Northern Illinois University. She teaches courses in motivation, group dynamics, and research methods. Her research focuses on motivation in achievement situations, and the situational and individual factors that contribute to the development of both performance and interest.


Fujita, K., Trope, Y., Lieberman, N., & Levin-Sagi, M. (2006). Construal levels and self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 351-367.

Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta-analysis of effects and processes. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 38, pp. 69-119). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Koo, M., & Fishbach, A. (2008). Dynamics of self-regulation: How (un)accomplished goal actions affect motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 183-195.

Orbell, S., & Verplanken, B. (2010). The automatic component of habit in health behavior: Habit as cue-contingent automaticity. Health Psychology, 29, 374-383.

Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2000). Time-dependent changes in preferences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 876-889.