The secret to keeping a New Year’s resolution

Anticipating obstacles and rewarding yourself are key to success, psychologists say

Couple out running
(Image credit: David Hastilow/Getty Images)

After the champagne glasses have been cleared away, many people will start the new year by making promises to themselves, often along the self-improvement lines.

“It is no coincidence many of us are especially keen to make positive changes after a hedonic holiday season,” said science writer David Robson on BBC Worklife. And most often, personal goals focus on physical health and wellbeing.

A UK survey carried out in November found that 43% of people will resolve to exercise more and eat more healthily in 2022, while 40% plan to lose weight, according to Statista. Around one in five Brits also plan to spend less time on social media, cut down on alcohol, quit smoking and reduce their work-related stress.

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But a significant part of the challenge is seeing the resolution through. According to YouGov, around a quarter of UK adults who made new year resolutions in 2020 failed to keep any of them. Only 48% kept some.

So what’s the secret to resolution success?

First, you need to pick a good goal. A lot of resolutions fail “because they’re not the right resolutions”, said Jen A. Miller at The New York Times. There are three signs that your goal for the year might be “wrong”, according to Miller: “it’s too vague”; the resolution is “created on what someone else (or society) is telling you to change”; or “you don’t have a realistic plan for achieving your resolution”.

Take a lesson from the management handbook and set a “SMART” goal from the outset, Miller recommended. Make your goals specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound to increase the likelihood of success.

Huff Post’s Brittany Wong also noted that you don’t have to make “big, lofty pledges”. With pandemic fatigue rolling on into 2022, “humble goals will do just fine” this year.

And “the way you frame your resolutions could make an important difference”, said Robson, writing for the BBC. A study conducted by psychologist Professor Per Carlbring at Stockholm University investigated whether people who planned to give up something were more likely to stick to their resolution than those who opted for adopting a new habit.

The two groups were separately categorised into those who had set “avoidance goals” and those with “approach goals”. Carlbring concluded that participants were 25% more likely to succeed in an approach goal on average.

Carlbring noted that an avoidance goal can be reframed into an approach goal. “Instead of saying that I want to stop eating a candy bar every day, I might instead say that I want to start eating carrots each afternoon,” he told Robson.

Once you’ve picked an appropriate and achievable resolution, psychologist Professor John C. Norcross recommended publicly declaring your goal. “Public commitments are generally more successful than private decisions,” he said.

Next, form a success strategy. “You won’t just wake up and change your life” so a plan is essential, said Miller. And “any resolution plan should include room for mistakes”.

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, recommends breaking a habit into three parts: a cue, a routine and a reward. Noticing your cues and trying to change your routine response can help to break a bad habit, and a reward is essential “otherwise your brain won’t latch onto the behaviour”, said Duhigg.

It’s also advised to “think of resolutions as marathons, not 100-yard dashes”, said Norcross. “If you’re building a habit, you’re planning for the next decade, not the next couple of months”, said Duhigg.

If you’re in it for the long haul, then it’s “inevitable” that hurdles will crop up, said Miller. So “don’t berate yourself” when things go wrong, said psychologist Pauline Wallin. Instead “focus on what you’re doing good for yourself”, and “look at what you’ve already achieved”, said Miller.

Being prepared for obstacles will also increase your likelihood of being able to get around them. “You’ll still need perseverance”, said Robson, but it helps to “be flexible when life gets in the way”, added Miller.

If you stumble, “you can always try to look for another milestone that might mark a new beginning”, such as the start of another month later in the year, added Robson.

And finally, “find like-minded resolvers”, said Miller. “While some friends and family want to help, others can hold you back” so identify those who can boost your likelihood of success and those who may pull you back into bad habits: “your happy hour buddies, the smoking crew at work”, for example.

If a 12-month commitment still feels too much of a tall order, CNN’s features editor David G. Allan tried setting monthly “micro-resolutions”, abstaining from particular habits each month “like a dozen back-to-back-Lents”. He found it his “most successful” attempt at keeping a resolution yet.

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