The Science Behind Achieving New Year’s Resolutions

Most of us will fail to achieve our New Year’s resolutions. Here’s what science tells us about how to improve our odds this time around.

At the end of this year, many of us are likely to set some New Year’s resolutions. One year later, if research is anything to go by, just 12% of those setting resolutions will have achieved them.

With performance like that in any other walk of life, we might throw in the towel, get fired, liquidate the business, terminate the relationship, vacate the premises – end our embarrassing association for good.

But this isn’t any other walk of life.

Alas, the new year is all too often the time of year in which our shoddy goal setting is exposed, time and time again. Lots of us even add insult to injury by “going public”, sharing our goals widely among friends and family – even sharing with virtual communities on social media – all in the hope that this will foster some deeper sense of accountability. (It probably won’t, by the way.)

So if 88% of us are condemned to fail, why do we keep doing it?

The answer is quite straightforward. Firstly, temporal landmarks actually improve our odds of tackling goals. That may seem counterintuitive based on the statistics I’ve just set out, but the so-called ‘fresh-start effect’ has a powerful psychological hold. This is, after all, why so many of us wait for the transition to New Year to set goals that would have been worthy of pursuit over the preceding months.

Secondly, New Year’s resolutions aren’t condemned to fail at all. 88% of us mess up, not because failure is preordained, but because we take the wrong approach. Effectively-designed resolutions can be a powerful tool for self-improvement. We just need to avoid the predictable traps.

How to Achieve New Year’s Resolutions, According to Science

The question, then, is how. How can we avoid the traps and in turn drastically improve our odds of achieving our New Year’s resolutions? Here are some science-backed suggestions.

#1: Make SMART resolutions

We grossly underestimate how hard self-change is. And because we believe self-change is easy, we repeatedly set goals that aren’t realistic. Psychologists call this the false-hope syndrome. To counter this risk, we must ensure that our resolutions are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound).

Resolutions must be specific, measurable and time-bound so we can monitor our performance and hold ourselves to account. When our goals are abstract or vaguely defined, research tells us that we’re much more likely to procrastinate or throw in the towel completely.

Resolutions must also, of course, be relevant to our aspirations, ideally with the majority based on intrinsic aspirations, which as I’ve previously argued, tend to have a stronger motivational hold.

And finally, to combat false-hope syndrome, our goals must be achievable. Not so instantly achievable that it renders the resolution process redundant, but stretching and realistic.

#2: Make only a few resolutions

Too many resolutions spoil the broth. Make a list of up to 10 goals for the year and then narrow them down to a maximum of 5 goals (ideally less) based on what is most important to you for the year ahead. A few simple goals are far more effective than a scatter-gun approach.

#3: Don’t go public

Resist the urge to tell your friends, family and social media networks about your resolutions. While you may think this sense of accountability will increase the probability of achieving your resolutions, research tells us the opposite. In fact, when we go public with our resolutions, just the announcement of our goals gives us a premature sense of achievement. This in turn makes us less likely to achieve them during the year.

#4: Plan and visualise your resolutions

Too many unpublicised SMART resolutions fail for one simple reason: we don’t have a plan. Without a bit of prework, your resolutions may be destined for failure before you’ve even started.

Think about the practical limitations of your resolutions and break down goals into smaller, monitorable actions. If you have a resolution to go to the gym, on which days will you attend? Do you have an exercise program in mind? What are your exercise goals for each month? How will you monitor your progress?

Do not wait until 31st December to do this for each of your resolutions. Plan ahead. And once you have your plan, you can begin to visualise its realisation. Psychologists have shown that visualising the completion of actions can have real effects on achievement in practice. The mind really is more powerful than we think.

#5: Celebrate short-term wins

Having broken down your resolutions into smaller goals and actions, you have the foundation in place for achieving them. The primary reason for breaking down these goals is motivational. As humans, we tend to discount rewards that are distant and inflate nearer-term rewards, known as temporal discounting.

As we achieve our shorter-term goals, we should celebrate these wins and reward ourselves. The science tells us that these short-term wins provide much more motivational impetus than rewards on a distant horizon.

#6: In the face of setbacks, stick at it

Habits aren’t formed in a day. On average, research suggests it takes 66 days before a new behaviour becomes automatic. But that isn’t license to relax once you get to 66 days. How long it takes to form a new habit can vary considerably depending on the context, taking anywhere between 18 to 254 days according to the same research.

Charles Duhigg provides an excellent perspective on changing habits in his book, The Power of Habit (UK, US). In short, he suggests habit change requires us to change one part of the cue-action-reward cycle, keeping an existing cue and reward but changing the action. (I recently referred to this idea for eradicating my YouTube habit.)

The central point here is that once you’ve started a new action, things may not go perfectly. Be forgiving of yourself and kick on in the face of these setbacks. Research is even on your side, with one study showing that those who forgive themselves for setbacks stand a better chance of getting stuff done.

A 10-Step Resolutions Plan

The bottom line is that if we want to achieve our resolutions, they need to be more than a fluffy wish list on social media. We need to give them serious thought.

This year, why not do things differently? The chances are that your previous approach hasn’t worked (unless you’re in the 12%).

As you contemplate your New Year’s resolutions, do yourself a favour this year and follow this 10-step plan:

  1. Make no more than 5 SMART and stretching resolutions.
  2. Break down your resolutions into smaller, monitorable goals.
  3. Make a plan and visualise execution of those goals.
  4. Write down your resolutions.
  5. Take a picture of them beside proof of the date.
  6. Tell nobody about them.
  7. Pursue them like you only get the year once.
  8. Celebrate short-term wins.
  9. Stick at it in the face of setbacks.
  10. Publish them at the end of the New Year.

If you follow these 10 steps, you will drastically improve your odds of moving from the 88% that fail to achieve their resolutions to the 12% of achievers. Why not give it a shot?

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