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In search of an attainable New Year’s resolution

How to actually improve your life, one small change at a time.

It’s that time of year again — when seemingly every advertisement, social media post, or well-meaning loved one is quick to remind you how you’re due for a refresh, a restart, a rebrand. Self-improvement is difficult any time of year, but you may feel extra pressure to embark on a life change at the top of the new year. The desire to set goals often comes on the heels of the start of a new week, month, year, semester, or birthday, dubbed the “fresh start effect.” When the slate is wiped clean in any capacity, people feel more compelled to conquer a challenge.

New Year’s resolutions get a bad rap for being notoriously unattainable. Studies and surveys show that people aren’t great at sticking to resolutions, ditching them within the first month. However, the process you take in reaching the goal holds more weight than simply making a choice to change.

“The issue is not the resolutions themselves, it’s the way we approach them,” says Katy Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who studies the fresh start effect, is the host of the podcast Choiceology, and author of How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. “And that’s where science can help.”

Make meaningful, value-driven resolutions

Sticking to a resolution is far easier when it aligns with your priorities. Aiming to spend less money is an impressive goal, but there are plenty of opportunities to consume (and targeted ads urging you to do so). Charissa Chamorro, a supervising psychologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, recommends thinking about the top five values in your life and considering how your goal of spending less ties into these values. “Maybe your values are to be more ecologically aware and not consume so much,” she says. “Then that can be a motivator in terms of sticking to your habits.”

What matters to you most in life? In what ways can your attempts at self-improvement help serve those values? If having quiet time in your day is important to you, but you get frustrated whenever you attempt to meditate, perhaps reading a book before bed is a more achievable intention.

Get super specific with how you’ll work toward your goals

The problem with resolutions, Milkman says, is they’re too abstract: I’m going to be more patient, I’m going to volunteer more, I’m going to save money. These goals are admirable, but they don’t offer a guide on how to achieve those resolutions. After you set your benchmark goal, plan how you’ll do it. Ask yourself questions like “When will I volunteer?” “Where will I volunteer?” “How will I get there?” “How many hours a week will I dedicate to volunteering?” Research suggests that when people are intentional with how to implement a change, they’re more likely to achieve their goals.

Context is crucial to your plans. “Our goals may set the tone and motivate us to create habits,” Chamorro says, “but it’s actually engaging in daily, context-specific behaviors that creates a habit.” If you’re mapping out how to achieve a resolution, such as the popular resolution of improving fitness, think about how this goal fits into your pre-existing routines. Maybe you throw on workout clothes right after making your bed and before brushing your teeth and then you go for a 10-minute walk. Perhaps you want to cut down on alcohol in the new year. Make your surroundings more amenable to that goal and remove any adult beverages from your house and swap your wind-down glass of wine with a mocktail.

For people with already limited time, adding more items to your to-do list can be a deterrent to self-improvement. Milkman suggests focusing on one manageable goal at a time. Instead of vowing to be a more present parent, child, and friend, dedicate 30 minutes a week to a phone call with your parents.

Break your resolution down into mini-goals

New Year’s resolutions tend to fall under the umbrella of behavioral goals, where someone commits to doing something different in their life, says Denise Rousseau, the Heinz University professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Jumping into a massive life change isn’t sustainable for most people, and far-reaching milestones can feel overwhelming and difficult. People often ditch their goals if they’re too easy or far too difficult, Milkman says, so breaking down your resolutions into bite-sized targets helps people stick to these goals. For example, if you’re resolving to eat healthier, a first mini-goal would be to buy more fruits and vegetables. Second, try not to let these foods go bad. Next, prepare and consume those fruits and veggies three days a week, and build up from there. “The secret sauce of goal setting is breaking it down into task strategies and sub-goals,” Rousseau says. “You’re less likely to blow it off because it starts to seem too big a deal, too hard to do, too hard to fit in my life.”

A recent paper co-authored by Milkman showed that when faced with a big commitment of agreeing to volunteer for 200 hours a year, people not only stuck to their goal but actually dedicated more hours to volunteering when the goal was broken down into four hours per week as opposed to hours per year. So, if you’re looking to save up for a big vacation this year, telling yourself to sock away $5 a day will be more effective than reaching for $150 in savings a month, even if they equal the same amount.

Make your mini-goals fun and rewarding

Sometimes reaching our goals feels uncomfortable and unpleasant, like those first few times at the gym or when your new hobby gets a little boring. When these annoying and painful moments rear their heads, people are unlikely to persist with the change, Milkman says. However, making these tasks or sensations more enjoyable and rewarding helps you stick with it. If you’re vowing to read more, treat yourself to a latte when you’re about to pick up a book. Or save your favorite podcast to savor while you’re on your self-imposed daily walk. “By combining a temptation with a chore,” Milkman says, “that chore becomes something that’s actually associated with pleasure and you start looking forward to it instead of dreading it.”

Incorporating a social component not only makes your tasks more enjoyable, but having an accountability partner helps both of you achieve your goals. Enlist a friend with a similar goal to share tips and solidarity — and to make a potential chore a social event. Especially if your goal is to drink less, enlisting an errand friend is a means of catching up, checking off a few items on your to-do list, and socializing without the pressures of alcohol. “When we give advice to others who are working toward similar goals, that actually improves our own performance,” Milkman says. “Having a back-and-forth coaching situation with someone else striving in a similar direction can be useful.”

The idea is for your mini-goals to become a part of the fabric of your life, “rather than just a thread,” Rousseau says. Standalone tasks — like going to the gym — are difficult to maintain on their own, but going to a yoga class with a friend or treating yourself to sushi afterward helps integrate these activities into our schedules. “If I do this, I get this,” Rousseau says. “If I do this, I see these guys; if I do this, it takes me into this neighborhood and then I’ll do these other things.”

Be prepared for when you mess up or want to quit

Inevitably, there will come a day when you break your knitting streak or need to spend money on an unexpected expense and miss your financial goal. Everyone slips up, but those who see mistakes as an opportunity for growth as opposed to failure are better positioned to move forward, Milkman says. “There’s research showing that basically if you teach people about the malleability of things like IQ and performance in school, it leads to better outcomes because they stop thinking, ‘God, I’m so dumb,’ when something goes wrong — it’s like, ‘Oh, I just need to study harder and I can do better,’” she says. “It’s true not just about academic performance.”

Embrace the rest days, the treats, the catering to temptations — and remember the key to goal achievement is persistence, not perfection, Rousseau says. In fact, missing a few days of a new behavior doesn’t impact the habit-forming process, according to a study. In these moments of fallibility, re-engage with your goal. Why did you make this resolution? Where do you want to be a year from now? “When we have those kinds of interruptions, the idea is to reaffirm your commitment to the goal by reflecting on what is the outcome you want, what is the self you want to be, and where you are now,” she says. “This discrepancy is something I want to close… So it gets me back on track.”

When mapping out how many days a week or month you’d like to dedicate to a new hobby, for example, incorporate “get out of jail free” days, too. If you told yourself you’d practice guitar seven days a week with three “get out of jail free” days, you’d still meet your goal if you picked up the instrument four days a week. Research shows people are more likely to persist with their goals with these “emergency reserve” days integrated into their schedules because built-in forgiveness is inherently more attainable.

Aiming for self-improvement is never a bad idea, Rousseau says, and despite the cliché of New Year’s resolutions, you shouldn’t feel deterred from wanting to better yourself. Just be clear with your intentions, set a road map with smaller benchmarks along the way, and don’t let setbacks derail your progress.

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