If you’re like the 40 to 50 percent of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions, this January you might be hitting the gym, giving up cigarettes, trying to develop better spending habits, or learning a new skill. Despite the common belief that these New Year’s resolutions are likely to fail, psychologists have found that they can indeed be successful: in one study, 46 percent of participants were able to keep to their resolution over a six-month period. So how can you make sure your resolution sticks? Read on for some suggestions:
1.) Choose your goals with care. The psychologist Robert Emmons has investigated how the types of goals that we choose to strive for impact well-being. In one study, life satisfaction was related to striving for things that participants saw as important. On the other hand, negative emotion was related to striving for things that were in conflict with each other (e.g. when spending time working for a promotion at work interferes with one’s goal to spend more time with family). In other words, we’re better off if we choose to focus on categories of goals that are important to us, and avoid making goals that are at odds with each other.
Other research on motivation has found that people who are trying to make a change do better when they are intrinsically motivated; that is, when they’re doing something because they want to rather than because they’re forced to. So when you’re choosing your resolutions, stop and think about why you feel the need to accomplish it. Is it something you really want to do for yourself, or are you only doing it because you feel you need to in order to please someone else?
Finally, when choosing your goals, you may find it useful to frame your goals in a positive way (an outcome you want to achieve) instead of a negative way (an outcome you want to avoid). For example, if your goal is related to dieting, you might want to make the goal of, “I want to eat healthier foods” as opposed to “I want to cut out all junk food.” (For more information on how framing goals positively is beneficial for well-being, click here.)
2.) Smaller steps can have big effects. If you’re having trouble getting started, you may find it helpful to start with small, easier steps, and try to do a little bit each day. For example, when I have a paper to write, I’ve found it’s easier to get started if I set small, specific goals (e.g. “I’ll read one article I think will be useful to include in my paper” instead of “I’ll do all of the research for my paper.”). Smaller steps like this make it easier to overcome procrastination, and often achieving one small step can help you build momentum (for more information about how to build momentum, click here).
3.) Think about what you want–and what’s standing in your way. One helpful technique developed by psychologists is mental contrasting. With mental contrasting, you think about what goals you want to achieve, as well as potential obstacles that might prevent you from achieving your goal. For example, if your goal is to eat healthier, take some time to think about some of the benefits you’ll experience (such as having more energy and lowering your risk of illness) once you’ve adopted a healthier diet. Then think about some of the obstacles that might be standing in your way, such as snacking on junk food when you get home from work, or turning to unhealthy food when emotionally stressed). One way mental contrasting is valuable is that it can help you get clearer about which goals are reachable (i.e., worth that time and energy required) and which ones should be discarded. In order for this technique to work, you need to vividly visualize the desired goal, the anticipated obstacles, and ways to get around those challenges. For more detailed instructions, click here.
4.) Build it into your routine. A helpful strategy I’ve discussed before is to form implementation intentions. To form an implementation intention, you decide, “Whenever I am in X situation, I will engage in Y behavior.” For example, in the example I mentioned above (snacking after work), an implementation intention could be, “When I get home for work, I’ll have an apple with peanut butter instead of potato chips.”
Implementation intentions combine well with mental contrasting. One study found that combining mental contrasting and implementation intentions led people to eat fewer unhealthy snacks, and that these activities were more beneficial than just making a list of healthy snacks.
5.) Subtle cues can have big effects. Psychologists have found that small cues from our environment can influence us in unexpected ways. Researchers at Cornell University have found that subtle factors can affect what we eat. In one study, participants ate more food when they ate from bigger bowls, and less food when they ate from smaller bowls. In another study, participants ate 25% fewer pieces of candy when they kept the candy inside a desk drawer instead of on top of their desk.
Although this research focused on food, you can try out the general principle for other habits as well. Want to exercise more? Put your running shoes or yoga mat in a visible place instead of in the back of your closet. Or put your TV remote in a different room, so that you have to think twice about whether to watch TV instead of going for a run.
6.) Be kind to yourself. You’ve probably heard before that many New Year’s resolutions fail by Valentine’s Day. While research has found that many people do in fact give up on their resolutions in the first month, it’s important to remember that an early setback in January or February doesn’t mean your resolution is doomed. Think of it this way: if you haven’t succeeded by Valentine’s Day, you have another ten months left in the year to work on your resolution. In fact, one study found that people who were ultimately successful at keeping their New Year’s resolutions experienced a temporary slip-up an average of 14 times!
But how do you keep motivated after lapsing on your resolution? Instead of beating yourself up over it, psychologists have found that a better approach is to practice self-compassion. Self-compassion refers to being kind and understanding towards yourself in response to negative events. Rather than ignoring or avoiding failures and shortcomings, people who are high in self-compassion see their failures as part of the common human experience, rather than treating themselves harshly in the face of setbacks.
One study measured self-compassion and coping among college students who were unhappy with their performance on a midterm. Students who were higher in self-compassion were more likely to positively reframe the experience and try to grow from it, and they were less likely to try to engage in denial. So if you end up experiencing a setback on your resolution, think about the incident and what you can learn from it—but go easy on yourself and remember that failures are human.
Another way to cope with setbacks is to develop what psychologists call a growth mindset. Instead of seeing failure as a reflection of your abilities, it’s more beneficial to see our mistakes and failures as an opportunity to grow and develop as a person. (For more information about compassionate ways to find motivation, click here.)
In conclusion: At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that we’re not superhuman: there just aren’t enough hours in the day to keep your house organized, learn a new language, take up cooking, tackle that pile of books on our to-read list, and run a marathon. However, even if we can’t do everything, psychologists have found that there are many ways we can maximize the success of our goals. In particular, you may find it useful to choose your goals carefully, take small steps towards your goal, build your goals into your daily routine, and treat yourself kindly if you experience a setback.
Marieke Adriaanse, Gabriele Oettingen, Peter Gollwitzer, Erin Hennes, Denise de Ridder, & John de Wit: When planning is not enough: Fighting unhealthy snacking habits by mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII)
Cornell University Food & Brand Lab: Super bowls: Serving bowl size and food consumption; How visibility and convenience influence candy consumption
About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology. Her research interests include positive emotions, close relationships, coping, and health. Outside of the research lab, Elizabeth can often be found going to yoga class, teaching her puppy new tricks, and working on her creative writing.