clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The science of actually keeping your New Year's resolutions


I don't know you, and you don't know me, but I am going to make a guess we have at least two things in common: we have made a New Year's resolution at some point. And we have broken a New Year's resolution at some point.

The number of Americans who make New Year's resolutions typically hovers around 40 percent or so, and has held pretty constant for decades now, as this data from the Marist polling firm shows.

Each year, that's tens of millions of Americans who plan to change something about their behavior. And research suggests that most of them fail.

The most rigorous study of New Year's resolutions, conducted by researchers at the University of Scranton, shows a steep drop off in how long New Years resolutions stick around. Seventy-seven percent of the resolvers studied made it through a full week, then 55 percent stuck with their goals for a month. By June, six months into the New Year, only 40 percent of those who had made a New Year's resolution were still sticking with the goal.

Given that so many Americans do make New Years resolutions each year, researchers have learned a thing or two about what helps people succeed. Here are three key things they've learned about the people who do stick to their goals, and what separates the 40 percent of people who keep their New Years resolutions from the 60 percent who don't.

1) Make your goal attainable


Set your sights on losing five pounds — not 50. (Shutterstock)

Yes, it is more exciting to choose a big target as a New Year's resolution, to commit to losing 50 pounds or quitting smoking cold turkey. And yes, it is much more boring to commit to losing five pounds in a year, or smoking one less cigarette per day.

But the people who study goal-setting are pretty universal on this point: the more manageable goals are the ones where people actually succeed. And this is pretty intuitive: it's a lot easier to commit to small-level change than a complete life overhaul.

"When you set weight loss goals, you don't really know how your body is going to react or what is going to be attainable," says Lisa Ordonez, a professor at the University of Arizona's Eller School of Business whose research focuses on goal-setting in organizations. "If you haven't done it for awhile, you need to do your research and revise your expectation."

Another benefit of setting attainable goals: you can always up the ante. The person who commits to losing five pounds and succeeds can set another target, to lose a bit more weight. But the person who loses five pounds while committed to shedding 50 pounds, is still eons away from declaring a victory.

Meanwhile, there's actually a tangible risk to failure: research has shown that people who don't meet their goals in dieting, for example, become less likely to succeed in future attempts. They seem to build up a narrative in their head that the thing they want to do is impossible. They have, after all, screwed it up before.

"Every time we fail, we damage our own self-esteem," says Janet Polivy, a psychologist at the University of Toronto in Mississauga. "We make ourselves less able to bounce back the next time. One thing we see is that, when people fail, they don't blame the diet. They blame themselves. And that makes it hard to start again."

2) Know that you will screw up. That's inevitable, and okay.

A few decades back, Polivy discovered what is arguably one of the best-named psychological phenomena: the "what the hell" effect.

She and her co-workers did a study where she gave dieters milkshakes before serving them a dish of ice cream (why, exactly, people trying to lose weight would sign up for this study is unclear). The milkshakes were of variable sizes; some dieters got big ones, others were tiny.

For dieters, you would think that those who got the larger milkshakes would eat less ice cream — they were, after all, trying to count calories. But Polivy found the opposite: those who had large milkshakes ate even more ice cream. The mentality seemed to be: my diet is already off the wagon, why not screw up a bit more?

"The research has been replicated fairly frequently," Polivy says. "There seems to be this sense of, well, I ate something I shouldn't, this day is ruined, I'll just start again tomorrow, or next week, or next month."

Of course, not everybody starts again. Sometimes, the screw-up becomes the reason to say to hell with the entire diet. Polivy's argument is that goals don't have to work this way: you can acknowledge the mistake and then get back on track. One extra scoop of ice cream isn't a reason to give up on a weight loss goal altogether.

3) Be very motivated and committed

Behavior change is hard. Really, incredibly hard — that's why we usually stick to the routines that we have. It's easier to skip the gym than go; it's built into our routines to go out drinking with friends on a Friday, rather than skip the calories that come along with one (or five) beers.

Lisa Lahey, a Harvard professor and co-author of the book "Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization," recommends looking at the concrete steps that will need to happen in order to achieve the changes that you're looking for. What are the things that will be different about your life, and how can you manage those behaviors?

Take weight loss, for example: one thing that dieters sometimes struggle with is missing out on opportunities to eat with others. And this is a real fear, she says, of becoming disconnected with others as they try and achieve their goals.

Lahey recommends not giving up communal meals altogether but rather testing out how to best manage those situations.

"You don't have to do the prima donna thing and order grilled chicken when everybody else is eating chicken parmesan," Lahey says. "You can feel like you belong by eating less of your portion, or maybe just deciding not to have bread. And gradually you learn how to balance."

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.