Be honest — how many New Year’s Resolutions have you actually kept for longer than a few weeks? Not many, right?
You’re not alone. The things that we resolve to do — exercise more regularly, eat a healthier diet, save more money — are often exactly the habits we find most difficult to adopt. These kinds of changes require sustained motivation, and the ability to resist immediate rewards in favor of longer-term benefits — something our brains find very difficult.
But it’s not impossible to make them happen. Here’s a brief guide, based on interviews with experts and research in the psychology of motivation and goal-setting, to actually keeping your resolutions.
1) Only choose goals you really care about
This might sound obvious — who would set a resolution they don’t actually care about? But it’s surprisingly easy to tell yourself that you really should do something that you don’t really, on a gut level, feel like you want to do.
If you don’t even start out with a strong desire to keep your resolution, there’s no way you’ll manage to keep motivated. Piers Steel, one of the world’s leading researchers in the science of motivation and procrastination, has found that believing your goal is valuable — that achieving it will ultimately make your life better — is a crucial factor for staying motivated.
Sometimes you have to drill a little deeper to get to what you really care about. The idea of going for a run in the wind and cold doesn’t fill me with excitement. But the idea of being someone who is fit and healthy, and the kind of person who exercises regularly, does feel strongly motivating to me. Ask yourself: what is it about achieving this goal, or developing this habit, that excites me? If you can’t get yourself into a state where you feel really motivated by your resolution, you might want to choose something different.
2) Only choose goals you believe you can achieve
A second vital component of motivation, according to Piers Steel’s model of motivation based on decades of research, is self-efficacy: believing that you have the ability to achieve your goal. I’m pretty sure that cutting all alcohol and sugar out of my diet would be good for me — but I’m skeptical that this is a goal I can realistically meet.
This doesn’t mean that you should only set easy goals, goals that you have no doubt you’ll meet. Almost anything worth doing is going to be challenging, and you’re likely to face obstacles along the way. But your goal should be something that you realistically can see yourself achieving with hard work.
3) Make a "trigger-action" plan
Research in psychology finds that one of the best ways to make sure you actually achieve your goals is to use implementation intentions: "if-then" plans which specify exactly what action you’re going to do and when. Also sometimes known as "trigger-action plans", the basic idea is that you set a clear, concrete trigger: "when I walk through my front door after work", followed by an action that you’ll take after the trigger: "I will put on my running clothes." Results from almost 100 studies find that people who make these trigger-action plans are significantly more likely to reach their goals, across a variety of domains.
For this to work, your trigger should be something specific and obvious — so it will be very clear to you when it’s occurred. For example, say your New Year’s resolution is to start flossing (not exactly exciting, I know, but a useful habit all the same). A bad trigger for flossing your teeth would be something like "in the evening" — this is far too vague and will likely pass you by. A much better trigger would be "when I put down my toothbrush after brushing", which is much clearer.
The action you have to take should also be small and very easily doable. You’re trying to build an automatic connection between the trigger and the action, so it becomes a habit — the easier the action is, the more likely this will happen.
4) Change your environment
Research also finds that one of the most effective ways to change your habits is to change your environment. If you can set up your surroundings in a way that makes your desired behavior easy or natural, you’re much more likely to stick to it.
If you’re on a diet, don’t buy unhealthy food and keep it around the house. If you want to go running in the mornings, put your running clothes and shoes by your bed. I’ve personally found the latter surprisingly effective — it might not seem like much, but the effort it takes to dig my trainers out of the cupboard is often enough to keep me in bed. In general, anything that makes keeping your resolution more natural and less effortful — removing distractions and temptations, putting reminders in relevant places — will make you much more likely to actually keep it.
5) Ask yourself: how surprised would I be if I failed?
I recently attended a workshop run by the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR), a San-Francisco based nonprofit who teach research-based techniques for improving your productivity, making better decisions, and achieving your goals. Amongst many other insights, they suggest using a "surprise-o-meter" to check how likely your plan is to work. Once you’ve made a plan to achieve your resolution, ask yourself, "how surprised would I be if I didn’t end up meeting this goal?" Your sense of surprise is some indication of how solid your plan really is — if you wouldn’t be that surprised, your plan probably has a few holes.
6) Identify reasons you might fail
Simply knowing you’re unlikely to succeed isn’t that helpful, though — you also need to be able to do something about it. Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor at New York University, suggests that the key is actually anticipating the concrete ways in which your goal might fail. Oettingen and colleagues have conducted a number of studies using a technique known as "mental contrasting": first focusing on your goal and why you want to attain it, and then turning to thinking about the obstacles standing in your way of that goal. What they find is that people who use "mental contrasting" to identify and overcome possible failure modes are twice as likely to stick with their goals.
Imagine yourself 6 months from now, having broken your New Year’s resolution, and feeling a bit down on yourself. What happened? What things might have gotten in the way? Maybe you’ve tried to meet a similar goal in the past and failed, in which case that’s a perfect source of information: what mistakes have you made in the past?
Once you’ve got a list of your possible "failure modes", you can guard against them. How can you ensure these specific barriers don’t hold you back? For example, you might realize you’re going to find it hard sticking to your diet when friends offer you treats — and so pre-warn everyone you know to keep the cakes far away from you.
Having done this, return to your surprise-o-meter: now how surprised would you be if you failed, with all these precautions in place? Hopefully a little more so. You might even want to repeat this process until your plan is so foolproof you’d be astonished if it didn’t work.
7) Set a time to check in
A big problem with new year’s resolutions is they are such a one-off. Once a year, we "resolve" to do things differently — but this burst of motivation inevitably fails as we slip back into everyday life, and we forget about our goals. Research in goal setting consistently finds that feedback on how you’re progressing is vital for staying motivated and achieving your goals.
If you really want to keep your resolutions, setting them once isn’t going to cut it: it’s vital that you check in and ask yourself: How am I doing? Have I made as much progress towards this goal as I’d like? Is there anything I can do to improve my plan going forwards? Is this a goal I really still care about?
As well as allowing you to refine your goals and plans, this is an opportunity to regain that motivation and excitement you felt when you initially made those resolutions on January 1st. Because at the end of the day, that’s why we so often fail to keep our resolutions: we forget about them and why they’re important.
Read more: "The science of actually keeping your New Year's resolutions."