Science-Based Tips to Stick With Those Resolutions

It’s now February. How’s that New Year’s resolution coming along?

If you’re like most people who resolved to make a lifestyle improvement, there’s a good chance you’ll abandon that goal in about a week (studies show 80 percent of people let resolutions slip by mid-February). If you’ve already fallen off track, don’t despair. In fact, “failing” could mean you’re well on your way to building lasting change (we’ll explain).

Given February is gut-check time for those New Year’s ambitions, we’ve pulled together some science-based tips to help you right the ship, change your frame of mind and keep the momentum going for the rest of the year. 


“A new year, a new you” is an Instagram-friendly declaration, but it isn’t all that helpful. A far more beneficial credo, but perhaps less likely to go viral, is “a new year, an incrementally better you.” Here’s why.

This notion that you’ll entirely reinvent who you are because the calendar changed leaves you vulnerable to false-hope syndrome (see also: Your eyes were bigger than your mouth). People tend the think they can change far more quickly and more easily than is realistically possible. It’s not wrong to be optimistic, but when all that weight doesn’t melt in a month, for example, it’s a big letdown. Setting sky-high goals are great in theory, but we tend to overlook the challenges they present, and that sets ourselves up to fail. This is false-hope syndrome in a nutshell. 

Instead, though it sounds counterintuitive, downsize your goals and expectations. Instead of hitting the gym every day and losing 50 pounds, get to the gym a few days a week and aim to lose 10 pounds. Instead of juggling five life-changing resolutions in 2020, narrow it down to one. It feels good to set big goals, but it feels even better to accomplish them.

If you’re stricken with those resolution blues, take your original goal and shrink it. Set yourself up for small wins — you can always raise the bar after a few Ws. As those victories stack up over the year, you’ll look back in December and realize how far you’ve come.


If you want to achieve your goals this year, embrace failure.

Like false-hope syndrome, framing your goals around all-or-nothing thinking is going to make it hard to succeed. Instead, more than three decades of research has shown that implementing a positive lifestyle change consists of five progressive steps, with failure as a feature, not a bug, along the way. 

It’s known as the transtheoretical model of change, and it’s now used by behavioral specialists around the world to help people make or break habits. There are five steps: precontemplation (ignorance is bliss), contemplation (on the fence), preparation (making a resolution), action (doing it) and maintenance (keeping it up).

Now, people don’t progress neatly from one step to the next, and quite often they’ll take a step backward or stumble and repeat the steps all over again. The key point is that it’s a continuous cycle, and backtracking is going to happen — and that’s fine. Changing behaviors is an imperfect process, and a single “failure” isn’t the end of the line, think of it as a new beginning.

So, if you’ve fallen short of reaching that resolution, there are still 10 months to go. Your failure is a chance to try it again.


Did you set a goal, such as “save more money” or “learn guitar”? This is a good place to start, but how much is “more?” What is “learning?” Back in 1981 George T. Doran published a paper describing S.M.A.R.T. goals, or a new way to frame objectives. The first two letters in that acronym stand for “specific” and “measurable.” So, instead of saving more money, put a specific dollar amount to it. If you want to learn to play guitar, set a specific, measurable goal of practicing for an hour three times a week.

That’s because the human mind despises ambiguity and craves certainty; psychologists call this cognitive closure. Here’s how it works: Imagine a person telling you they have a secret, but they immediately acknowledge they can’t tell it to you? Frustrating?

That’s because we inherently crave clarity! When your goals are specific and measurable, they are psychologically more appealing and satisfying than open-ended, vague goals. Strangely, that makes them easier to tackle.


Willpower is overrated.

Studies have shown that people who profess to have abundant willpower score no better in a test of will, known as the Stroop test, than people who say they don’t have much of it. The notion that we have a finite amount of willpower to “spend” has also failed to be replicated in studies.

Instead, people who are really good at accomplishing goals are also really good at finding shortcuts or building habits so they don’t have to think about those goals. If you make a habit of walking the dog every morning at 6 a.m., you almost do it on autopilot. You aren’t going through an exhausting routine of summoning self-control to actively decide to walk the dog. You just do it, you don’t think about it. It becomes automatic.

If your goal is to save more money, stop thinking about it and automate it. Contact HR and have a portion of each check directly deposited into your savings account. You won’t have to think about that goal again, and boy will you make progress by year’s end! Sometimes, the best way to accomplish a goal is to find a way to not think about it.

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