Its that time of year again. The champagne bottles have been popped, the balls have come down, and now your friends, family, and coworkers are asking, “What’s your New Year’s resolution?”
Some people prefer the tradition of setting goals every January 1st. Others argue that it is a waste of time as most resolutions fail by mid-March. But despite the grim numbers, there’s actually an argument to be made for jumping on the New Year’s resolution bandwagon.
My colleagues and I have shown that at new beginnings — dates like New Year’s Day, your birthday, and even Mondays — you are more motivated to tackle your goals because you feel like you’ve gotten over past failures. You can turn the page. Maybe you wanted to quit smoking, get fit or start going to bed at the right time last year and didn’t. A fresh start like a new year allows you to retrace those missteps in an old chapter and say to yourself, “That was the old me, but the new me will be different.”
It may sound crazy, but being able to put aside failures and try again is very helpful. After all, you can’t accomplish anything if you don’t try, and many achievable goals can be hard to achieve the first time.
If you want to increase your chances of sticking to your 2023 New Year’s resolutions, behavioral scientists have discovered several techniques that may help. These strategies are most useful if you’ve chosen a small, concrete goal. This means you want to avoid vague goals like “I will exercise more” and instead set specific goals like “I will exercise four times a week.”
Here are five of my favorite science-based tips for sticking to your resolutions, taken from my book “How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.”
1. Plan based on detailed instructions
Just as signs tell Broadway stars when to go on stage, research has shown that adding detailed cues to your plan helps you remember when to act. Be sure to detail when and where you’ll follow up.
If your New Year’s resolution is to meditate five days a week, a plan like “I’ll meditate during the week” is going to be too vague. But a quick-based plan like “I’ll meditate at the office on weekdays during my lunch break” will fit the bill.
Determining when and where you will act on your resolution jogs your memory when appropriate and induces guilt if you back out. (Putting your plan on a calendar and setting digital reminders won’t hurt.) Detailed planning can also help you anticipate and avoid obstacles, so if you plan to meditate at lunch, You’ll definitely turn down any lunch meeting that comes your way.
2. Consider the penalty clause
It may sound ominous, but it’s for sure that you may face some penalties if you don’t keep your New Year’s resolution.
An easy way to do this is to tell a few people about your goal so that if they come back later and see that you haven’t achieved your goal, you won’t be embarrassed. (Telling this to all of your social media followers would be even more so.)
However, a more serious punishment than shame is putting cold hard cash on the table, and there is excellent evidence that self-imposed cash punishments inspire success. You can bet with a friend that you’ll stick to your New Year’s resolution or make a call. Alternatively, technology can help. Websites like StickK.com and Beeminder.com invite you to bet money that you will have to give to a charity if you don’t achieve a set goal. All you have to do is name a referee and place a bet.
The logic of why this works is simple. Incentives modify our decisions and sanctions are even more motivating than rewards. We are used to being fined by outsiders (governments, health plans, neighborhood associations) for our missteps, but this time you fix yourself for misconduct.
3. Make it fun
Most of us strive for efficiency when it comes to achieving our goals. If you want to get in shape, you might think that intense training would be just what you need to make rapid progress. If you want to excel in a class, you recognize that long, distraction-free study sessions are vital. But research has shown that focusing on efficiency can dry you up because you’ll neglect an even more important part of the equation: whether you like the act of pursuing a goal.
If exercising or studying isn’t fun, it’s unlikely that you’ll keep doing it. But if you get pleasure from your workout or study session, research has found that you’ll stick around for longer. And in the end, this is what matters most for achieving Sankalp.
One way to make pursuing a goal that usually seems like a chore more fun is to pair it with a guilty pleasure. I call it the “group of temptations”. Consider only allowing yourself to watch your favorite TV show at the gym so you look forward to working out. Or letting you have a mocha latte during study session just so you can get a chance to take her to the library. My own research shows that temptation groups can be helpful when you might otherwise give up on your New Year’s resolution.
4. Allow emergencies
If you stray a bit from your New Year’s resolution, your tendency may be to declare it a failure and throw in the towel. Researchers call this the “What the Heck Effect”. Here’s what it looks like: You planned to go to bed early every night, but couldn’t resist staying up late on Friday to catch the bonus episode of “Succession.” After that, your plans to sleep early went out the window because “what the heck”, you had already failed.
Fortunately, there is a way to avoid this fate. Research shows that by setting hard goals (like going to bed by 10 p.m. every night), but giving yourself a get out of jail card or two each week, you can get better results than setting hard or easy goals. Huh. Your ambitious goal motivates you, and the ability to declare an “emergency” (instead of saying “what the heck”) keeps you going after one misstep.
5. Get some help from your friends
Why not get a little help from your friends?
Spending time with high performers can improve your own performance. If your New Year’s resolution is to run a marathon or write a book, it would be wise to start by hanging out with friends who have made it (literally or figuratively) and can show you how it’s done. You’ll learn a lot just by spending time together because you’ll be willing to adjust to their behavior patterns. But my research and the studies of others show that if you explicitly ask successful friends how they achieved a shared goal and try those strategies yourself, you’ll gain even more.
Oddly enough, there is evidence that training with friends who have shared goals can also improve your success rate. When you’re adamant about giving someone else advice on how to get it, it boosts your confidence (why would they listen to you if you have nothing to offer?). It also forces you to introspect about what you might not have done otherwise. And of course, if you don’t follow your own words of wisdom, you’ll feel like a hypocrite.
Happily, meeting your New Year’s resolutions with friends is also more fun, and that’s another key to success.
6. One more thing
Let’s say New Year’s Day has passed when you are reading this article and you feel that you have already failed. Science says no. You can start at any new beginning you choose: next Monday, next month, or on your birthday. Or pick any day to start and follow these five steps to start another good habit.