The psychology behind New Year’s resolutions that actually stick

Easy on that “gym every day “resolution.
Easy on that “gym every day “resolution.
Image: REUTERS/Aly Song
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

According to a Marist Poll, 44% of us will make a resolution for 2015. Like previous years, we will once again resolve to lose weight, get organized, save more money, and enjoy life to the fullest.

For real, this time.

But have you ever wondered why new year’s resolutions fail despite your best intentions?

The pattern is dismally familiar. You promise yourself that “I am going to lose weight next year.” You eat nutritiously for a few days and start going to the gym. Then, in a moment of weakness, you binge on leftover cake and chocolate-chip cookies, feel bad about your lack of willpower, slip back into old habits and give up.

Now, thanks to advances in brain science and behavioral research on motivation and habits, experts understand these frustrating patterns of our behavior better than ever before. By putting their insights to work, you can build more willpower and achieve more of your goals over time.

So what does science tell us about goals, motivation and how to stay on track?

First, writing down your goals is critical if you want to accomplish them. Then comes the harder parts:

Tip #1: Connect your goals to something personally meaningful to you.

You are more likely to stay on track with goals when they’re important, interesting or enjoyable for you. This happens when you connect your goals to your deepest values and aspirations.

Why is it really important for you to lose weight? Is it because it improves your feelings of self-worth and gives you energy to do other things; or is it because it allows you to be more active and makes you feel more attractive? Whatever it is, connecting your goals to these personal and emotional benefits are important in achieving them.

Tip #2: Break your goals into smaller milestones

Longer-term goals are never achieved in one go. You need to break longer term goals into smaller tasks or milestones. Accomplishing these milestones will give you a clear sense of progress, let you celebrate small wins and keep you motivated.

Tip #3: Make your milestones immediate and specific

Remember the motivation you have just before a deadline? Milestones should aim to create a similar sense of urgency in you by making them as immediate and specific as possible. Getting started is one of the hardest things in accomplishing a goal. Therefore, the most important task to make immediate is the first. “Lose on pound this week” is good but “Consume 2,000 calories or less today” may be even better.

Goal example: “Lose 15 pounds by June”

Milestone example: “Lose one pound this week”

Tip #4: Let others know about your specific goals

Letting your friends, family or co-workers know about your goals make it more likely that you will succeed. Research shows that this works only when your goals are verifiable. “Write more” is vague but “Write 500 words every week” is verifiable. No one likes to be seen as weak-willed so committing to goals in front of others increases your motivation to achieve them.

Tip #5: Make a “Fresh Start” in case of setbacks

Wharton business school professor Katherine Milkman and her colleagues have done research on the role timing of resolutions plays in building up motivation and overcoming inertia. They have labeled it the “fresh start effect.”

In an interview with Strategy + Business, Milkman says:

“at the beginning of a new week, the start of a new month, following a birthday, or after a holiday from work, people redouble their efforts to achieve their goals.

Why? Because … we’re always striving to be better. And when we can wipe out all those failures and look at a clean slate, it makes us feel more capable and drives us forward.”

According to the University of Scranton Journal of Clinical Psychology, people who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t explicitly make them.

So go ahead. Make a fresh start and commit to a new year resolution. Make allowances in your mind that failure and setbacks can occur but that you can always start over—and resolve to succeed.