Making your New Year’s resolutions stick, one last time

Happy New Year, friends!

It’s a pretty tired routine at this point. A new article on a productivity blog, published on January 1st, 2nd, or 3rd—you could easily guess what it might be about: the fabled New Year’s Resolution. Either it’s an unironic and wholesome piece of inspirational writing about the power of belief and the human spirit, pushing you to change your life every January—or, it’s some kind of fourth-wall-breaking, cynical takedown of the cottage industry of easily broken resolutions and January Planet Fitness discounts. Neither seem particularly appealing this year.

It’s not that the concept of new year’s resolutions is an inherently bad one—in fact, they’re pretty powerful. And for all the negative nancy talk we hear about people abandoning their resolutions by Day 30 (or Day 3) there’s less publicized data that suggests that in a lot of cases they actually can stick.

The annoying detail that’s sticking out to us this year is that this might be our third, fourth, maybe fifth year writing about resolutions. And as a culture and a people, it feels like they’ve been in the collective consciousness for…decades?

And a lot of us could be forgiven for feeling like nothing has changed, despite all those attempts. Now, this doesn’t mean it’s time to give up. It also doesn’t mean that there always has to be a moment of a hard “reset” each year. Enacting change can be a 24 month process, or a 6 month one. Resolutions you start this year, you would hope, could continue years into the future and retain a substantial force on your life.

So, instead of writing a sixth identical article about staying on top of your email in the New Year, let’s do this one last time. Let’s pick some no nonsense, simple, effective resolutions, and get them to stick—for life.

Take the process seriously


We can start by taking New Year’s resolutions seriously.

At their core, New Year’s resolutions are a representation of our desire to make a change—which is no small concept. It’s actually a deep and powerful instinct inside us, and one that could stand to make some hugely substantive transformations in our lives, if we do it right. That urge and that process should be respected.

And it just makes sense that our brains get really excited about starting that process at the start of a new year. It’s just a clean, simple, “nothing before this year mattered,” moment that feels convenient for doing something different than the day before. (We’ve written before about how nice a fresh start feels, and why it’s not a bad thing to lean in to that feeling)

But unfortunately for us humans, the next thought that seems to come after “I want to change” is, “let’s choose a lot of lofty goals and fling ourselves at them and hope for the best.”

That’s where those stats about rampant resolution failure come from: improper structure and planning.

You don’t have to wait until January 1st to make a change. You can actually make them any day of the year. The important part is the methodology you employ when you really go for it.

Here are some key starting points to convert a hopeful New Year’s resolutions into an enduring habit:

1. Craft a Clear and Manageable Plan


Often, we fall into the trap of dreaming about making drastic changes, lured in by promises of quick results. But, as we all know on some level deep down, genuine change really only happens gradually—one step at a time.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, emphasizes the concept of “aggregation of marginal gains.”

“In the beginning, there is basically no difference between making a choice that is 1% better or 1% worse. (In other words, it won’t impact you very much today.) But as time goes on, these small improvements or declines compound and you suddenly find a very big gap between people who make slightly better decisions on a daily basis and those who don’t. This is why small choices don’t make much of a difference at the time but add up over the long-term.”

So, consider the question: What small action can you take today that nudges you 1% closer to your objective? You could take the stairs at work today instead of the elevator. Or write 200 words, or just a few paragraphs, of your novel instead of giving yourself punishing metrics to hit. These incremental steps foster consistency. Dedicating five minutes to something every single yields more progress than a few sporadic three-hour sessions.

To make sure things stick, make it even more simple. Lay your workout clothes out in your bedroom the night before so you have less of an excuse to skip exercise. Keep the word document where you’re writing your screenplay just one or two clicks away on your desktop, always visible for you to see—you’re more likely to click it and type a few sentences at any given time.

Embracing resolutions as habits entails a shift in mindset. It’s about acknowledging the power of gradual progress, committing to small, manageable actions, and implementing subtle cues for sustained engagement. By embracing these strategies, resolutions stop feeling like fleeting dreams. They just start feeling like parts of your day instead. That’s what you want them to feel like.

2. Build on the good habits and behaviors you already have


Psychology (and James Clear) tell us that it’s easier to expand upon habits we already have in our wheelhouse, than to establish entirely new ones.

Let’s say you already take a brisk walk three times a week. That’s a great start. Consider adding an extra 10 minutes each time. By doing so, the habit of “going for a walk” that you’ve already established becomes the trigger for the new habit of “walking an additional 10 minutes.”

This approach can be applied across various areas of your life. For instance, if you aim to read more, instead of reading for just 10 minutes before bed, challenge yourself to read for 20 or 30 minutes. Similarly, if eating healthier is your goal, commit to cooking at home five nights a week instead of three. (These are very simple examples of the “anchor habit,” which we’ve written about here.)

And if you’re venturing into something entirely new, try the technique of habit stacking. This involves building a fresh habit upon an existing one. A simple framework for this is:

“After/Before [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”

For instance: “After I brush my teeth [CURRENT HABIT], I will meditate for 10 minutes [NEW HABIT].”

This leverages your daily routines to support the establishment of new habits and the maintenance of your New Year’s resolutions. This is how you can build a morning or evening routine that, despite lasting 30 minutes, is easy and unobtrusive and can lend massive change to your life.

3. Change the story you tell yourself about yourself

Habits and resolutions fundamentally revolve around transforming our self-identity. We all craft personal narratives defining who we are and what principles matter to us. And these narratives, though seemingly fixed, are flexible.

In the book Redirect, psychology professor Timothy Wilson describes leveraging these narratives to drive lasting behavioral change. One strategy he highlights is “story-editing.”

Here’s how you can implement it yourself:

  1. Begin by honestly documenting your current “story.” This might involve describing yourself or listing statements like “I am someone who does X, Y, and Z.”
  2. Pay close attention to any elements in this narrative that conflict with the new behaviors you wish to adopt. For instance, maybe your late-night snacking contradicts your goal of better health.
  3. Rewrite your story. Use the same framework but articulate the narrative you aspire to embody. Write the story of someone who has successfully embraced the behavioral changes you desire. Then, use “I” statements. For instance, “I am someone who prioritizes early mornings to focus on writing my novel.”

Though it might appear simple, research underscores the long-term impact of this straightforward technique. To echo author Kurt Vonnegut’s sentiment: ‘We become what we pretend to be, so we should be mindful of what we choose to portray.'”

4. Make sure your routine allows space and time for your resolutions


Ensuring your resolutions find their place within your daily routine is key to their success. It’s not just about what resolutions you make, but also about finding the right time to pursue them.

Consider this: if your schedule is already packed with no room for something new, how can you expect to dedicate yourself to your resolutions? And if your available time coincides with moments of low energy, like when you’re depleted after work, how do you hope to make progress?

Often, we overlook the natural ebb and flow of our energy levels throughout the day. Planning big amibitous resolutions without considering this natural rhythm in our day might lead to roadblocks. So, what’s the solution?

Begin by scheduling specific times for your resolution-related activities. Treat them as essential appointments by marking them on your calendar, similar to how you block off time for work commitments. This helps prioritize your resolutions. You can literally do this for anything, including sleep—but especially meditation, exercise, or working on a personal project

Additionally, devise a plan for handling life’s inevitable interruptions. Being too rigid with a schedule can be a hindrance almost on par with having no schedule at all. Instead, anticipate obstacles using techniques like a system called W.O.O.P from a man named Dr. Oettingen:

  • Wish: Define what you desire.
  • Outcome: Envision the ideal result when you reach your goal.
  • Obstacle: Recognize potential barriers based on past experiences.
  • Plan: Strategize how to overcome these obstacles.

Take time to explore these questions, especially focusing on the obstacles. Understand what might hinder your progress and brainstorm ways to circumvent or avoid these barriers altogether.

5.  Set up a system to reward and remind yourself of why you’re doing this


On January 1st, our enthusiasm is at an all-time high. It’s like the first mile of a marathon—you’re just so sure you could run the whole thing without breaking a sweat. But as challenges arise, it’s easy to lose sight of why your goals matter—or why finishing a marathon would be better than stopping at mile 6 and your ankle not hurting anymore. And while choosing the right resolutions helps, there are moments when motivation wanes.

To combat this, consider creating a setup of rewards and reminders. Here are a few practical approaches:

  1. Make a list outlining the reasons behind your goal and the values you’re striving for. Keep this list nearby and easily accessible to revisit whenever you might need it during moments of uncertainty.
  2. Share your aspirations with close friends and family, asking for their support and regular check-ins. Having a supportive network boosts your chances of success.
  3. Establish a daily reward for meeting your goal. Find something that resonates with you, whether it’s a symbolic gesture like marking progress on a calendar or a small indulgence like a piece of chocolate.

Additionally, aim to automate these reminders and rewards wherever possible. Self-accountability in behavior change can often be the worst part. Many of us would like to be able to avoid that part where you have to get out a pen and paper and track your progress.

Tools like RescueTime can assist by allowing you to set action-based goals and track progress automatically. For resolutions involving digital device usage, RescueTime can monitor your progress, celebrate achievements, and gently guide you back on track when needed.

RescueTime also can enable you to define goals for activities you want to increase or decrease and jot down personal reasons why these changes are meaningful to you. If part of your New Year’s resolution involves managing digital habits, RescueTime automates tracking and provides nudges to help you stay aligned with your goals.

Even if you fail, you’re still succeeding


If, after all that, you aren’t able to pull off the change you were hoping to make, the fact that you started the pursuit in the first place is a powerful thing.

The most important thing after “failing” a new year’s resolution is what you tell yourself next.

Here’s how you can reframe a failure as a step towards a win:

  1. Learning from missteps: Missing a goal presents an opportunity: to assess what worked and what didn’t. Was it the strategy, the expectations, or the goal itself? Understanding what went wrong will help to ensure it doesn’t happen again—at least not in the same way.
  2. Fresh start mentality: Consider any setback as a chance for a fresh beginning. Rather than dwelling on past shortcomings, focus on the road ahead with new determination.
  3. Positive self-talk: A setback doesn’t define you as a failure. It might feel obvious or simple to make a statement like that to yourself, but it’s deeply important on a subconscious level. The language you use in evaluating your progress can significantly impact your future success. Reframe the situation positively by emphasizing lessons what you’ve learned and what obstacles you could overcome in the future.

Research in the Journal of Clinical Psychology revealed an interesting trend: individuals who set New Year’s resolutions were ten times more likely to change their lives, compared to those who didn’t even try. And that doesn’t even necessarily mean they changed their lives at that very moment with that very resolution. It just meant they were on the right path towards making progress for themselves.

You knew deep down that the “80% of resolutions fail” stat sounded too depressing.

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You have a lot more of a chance than you think you do at changing your life drastically, and permanently. Let’s give it a real honest try this year. We wish you good luck—but you don’t need it.

Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.

One comment

  1. Thanks Robin, Some great strategies laid out nicely. I nave been setting new years resolutions for many years and find they work for me. The change is usually gradual. Reviewing my progress along the way is key for me. I refer back to my goals and when I find i’m failing. I make an assessment as to what went wrong recalibrate and get back on the horse, again and again .That way I find, slowly but surely, progress is made.

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