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Want to succeed at keeping your new year’s resolution? Try this

Obsession
Life as Laboratory
Obsession
Life as Laboratory

The symbolism of a new year tempts us to believe that it’s the ideal moment to turn over a new leaf. Unfortunately, our vows to overhaul our lives come January 1st don’t tend to pan out.

The most conclusive results on this subject come from a 1989 study in the journal Addictive Behaviours. It showed that only half of all participants managed to stick to their primary—that is, the most important—resolution after a month.

Psychologists say that one of the biggest reasons we cannot stick to our new year resolutions is because we choose resolutions that are radically different from our current lifestyle. For instance, one of the most common resolutions is to lose weight, or, in case of smokers, to stop smoking.

Keeping resolutions is about the art of self-control, which decades of research have shown is a limited resource. The resolutions we choose tend to be big goals, and thus they require a lot of self-control. As a result, these resolutions are also the easiest ones to give up on.

So what’s the solution? A formula I’ve been using for the last few years works fantastically well. Instead of setting high goals, I only resolve to get a little better at something I already do.

In 2014, I resolved to read better. So I read books about how to read better; found better authors to read; worked on reading quickly without losing out on comprehension and retention; and so on. In 2015, I resolved to be more active. I bought myself an activity tracker and measured myself (mostly) get better over the year.

The fundamental difference is that I now think of my New Year’s resolutions as an excuse to form a good habit, rather than chase a major, life-changing goal. In the end, those good habits help me achieve more anyway.

This is an edited version of a post I first wrote on my blog in 2013. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

Read next: The science of habit formation explains how to make goals that stick

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