Despite New Year’s resolutions being a huge part of our culture (even the ancient Babylonians made annual promises to their gods 4000 years ago), we’re notoriously bad at sticking with them.
According to recent research, while 45% of Americans say they usually make New Year’s resolutions, only 8% are actually successful in achieving their goals.
In fact, we’re so aware of our inability to stick with resolutions, we’ve committed 2 full days to our failures: Ditch Your Resolution Day on January 17th and Fall Off the Wagon day on February 4th.
But personal growth is important. Especially now when so much of the world feels chaotic and out of control, there’s no better time to take charge of your habits and goals. So how do you turn your New Year’s Resolutions into habits for life?
In this guide:
- How to identify and write the right New Year’s resolutions for you (even in January)
- Why most New Year’s resolutions fail
- 5 ways to make your New Year’s resolutions stick (for life)
- Why even a failed New Year’s resolution is a success
How to identify and write the right New Year’s resolutions for you (even in January)
Like any goal or habit you want to build, New Year’s resolutions are easier to stick with if you choose ones that are manageable, can be tracked, and are meaningful to you.
Unfortunately, most of us see the New Year as an opportunity for sweeping changes to our character. We want to become healthier, more successful, and more attractive (while also learning a new language).
But these kinds of New Year’s resolutions are simply ticking time bombs.
Instead, picking the right resolutions (whether at the end of the year or any other time) sets you up for success from the start. So what do those look like?
1. New Year’s resolutions have to be manageable
Psychologists know that small goals lead to big success.
But how many of us are setting a New Year’s resolution to complete 5 pushups a day or read one sentence of a book?
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be thinking about and aiming for large, scary, ambitious goals, but that large goals need a manageable plan attached to them.
As psychologist Dr. Lynn Bufka writes:
“It is not the extent of the change that matters, but rather the act of recognizing that lifestyle change is important and working toward it, one step at a time.”
For example, you might want to get in shape or lose 35 pounds this year. Those are big goals that don’t really tell you how you’re going to complete them.
Instead, how about saying “I’m going to get in shape this year by building a habit of taking a 20-minute walk every morning.”
This isn’t just a more manageable resolution to being with (which you can adjust later). It’s also specific. As you write your New Year’s resolutions, remember the power of SMART goals: They’re Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
2. New Year’s resolutions need to have some progress you can track
Psychologists also know that we’re more likely to stay motivated to hit big goals if we can see regular progress towards them.
This is called The Progress Principle. As Harvard Professor Teresa Amabile explains:
“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”
Tracking progress helps you stay committed to goals. It gives you something to celebrate each day. And it helps keep you motivated when your exciting New Year’s resolution becomes a daily slog.
So how will you track your 20-minute walk each morning?
You could set up a big calendar near your desk and write a large X on each day you walk (this is called the ‘don’t break the chain’ method). Or you could use a fitness tracker. Or even create an accountability group with friends who check in with you each day.
The method is up to you. What’s important is that there is some daily reminder of what you’re working on and how you’re doing.
3. New Year’s resolutions will only stick if they’re meaningful to you
Lastly, psychologists know that you’re much more likely to hit a goal, build a habit, or stick with a resolution if they align with your core values.
In other words, you’re working towards something you care about for the right reasons.
We want to switch jobs to make more money.
We want to lose weight to be more attractive.
While these results might seem like powerful motivators, they’re actually not. Researchers have found that the most powerful motivation comes from intrinsic motivation—the values and purpose that you already have.
So why do you want to lose weight or get into shape? If you need help, try using the Five Whys method. This is where you ask ‘Why?’ and then use the answer as the basis for the next question.
For example: I want to start my own business.
- Why? I’m sick of my work.
- Why are you sick of your work? Because I spend too much time on emails and in meetings.
- Why do you spend so much time on emails? Because my manager micromanages us too much.
- Why does that bother you? Because I value my personal freedom and autonomy.
- Why are those so important to you? Because my parents were entrepreneurs and I’ve always dreamed of following in their footsteps.
All of a sudden, you have a New Year’s resolution that has a deep personal connection and is much easier to stick with.
Why most New Year’s resolutions fail
Even if you pick the right resolutions, there’s still a good chance that you’ll drop the ball or lose focus at some point. That’s completely normal.
In fact, when we spoke to RescueTime users, barely 6.5% said their resolutions were successful, with most saying they quickly lost motivation or never hit their target.
Before diving into any behavior change, it’s important to know what you’re up against. So what are some of the most common reasons New Year’s resolutions fail?
- You focus on results and not the process. Incremental improvements are the key to making real change. But New Year’s Resolutions are rarely about the day-to-day and more about the results. It’s easy to get off course without a plan or system in place to build the habits that will get you there.
- False hope syndrome. In the motivational wave of the New Year, it’s easy to get caught up in what you could do. But overconfidence with what you can achieve often means you’ll give up when you don’t see results fast enough.
- Your goal doesn’t match your values. Why keep working towards something hard if deep down you don’t care about it?
- You picked something too big. Large goals start off inspiring and then quickly become overwhelming. If you’ve picked something too big it’s easy to miss a few days and feel like you’ll never catch up.
- You’re trying to do multiple things at once. New Year’s resolutions are all about prioritization. You need to be realistic about what can actually happen. Taking on too much at once means everything will eventually fail.
- You don’t have a clear plan in place (especially for when things go wrong). Setting a large goal doesn’t account for all of the things that will get in the way and how we’ll deal with them. It’s like asking your boss for help and having them say “I don’t care how you do it, just do it.”
- There’s no clear reward each time you complete your resolution. A resolution is essentially a habit. And new habits require a reward to make them stick. That’s why some people only listen to their favorite podcast when they run or eat a piece of chocolate after finishing a chapter of a book. The reward makes the habit stick.
These red flags can help you avoid the biggest pitfalls of resolution-making. But what about making your resolutions stick with you?
5 ways to make your New Year’s resolutions stick (for life)
Deep down, New Year’s resolutions are habits.
While most of us frame them as a specific goal, what we’re really saying is that we want to change who we are on a day-to-day basis. That’s no small task. But it reminds us of an ancient Chinese proverb:
“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
The New Year is still as excellent a time as any to start working towards the changes you want to make. And more important than when you start is how you go about changing your behavior.
Here are some of the most powerful ways to turn your New Year’s resolutions into habits you’ll stick with for life:
1. Create a clear plan that is ridiculously small and easy to do
It’s easy to see how we fall into false hope syndrome. Apps promise us mindfulness in just 10 minutes. Exercise programs claim we’ll drop 10 pounds in 3 weeks. Our brains are lazy and if we think we’ll get big results in little time, well, we’re going to go for it.
But these don’t work. Instead, you need to slowly work towards your goal one day at a time.
Author James Clear calls this the 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.”
Instead of only focusing on your big resolution of ‘getting in shape’ or ‘writing a novel’ ask this question:
What can you do today that would get you 1% closer to your goal?
For example, you could take the stairs each morning instead of the elevator, or write 200 words of your novel when you first wake up. If you do more, great! These are simply the smallest actionable steps you can take to stick with your resolution.
As author Srinivas Rao says:
Then, make these actions ridiculously easy to do.
Put a sticky note on your shoes that says ‘take the stairs’. Or leave your novel doc open on your laptop at the end of the day so it’s the first thing you see tomorrow.
2. Build on the good habits and behaviors you already have
The psychology of habits shows that it’s much easier to build off of existing habits than it is to start completely new ones.
For example, if you already go out for a brisk walk 3 times a week then add on 10 more minutes each day. This way, your ‘Go for a walk’ habit you’ve built now becomes the cue for the new ‘walk 10 more minutes’ habit.
This can work for anything you currently do.
If your goal is to read more, then instead of reading for 10 minutes before bed, say you’ll read for 20 or 30. If your goal is to eat healthier, say you’ll cook at home 5 nights a week instead of 3.
Or, if you’re looking at starting something completely new, try habit stacking. This is where you build a new habit off of a current one. A basic formula is:
After/Before [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].
For example: After I brush my teeth [CURRENT HABIT] I will meditate for 10 minutes [NEW HABIT.
Habit stacking takes advantage of the things you already do on a daily basis to help you build new habits and stick with your New Year’s resolutions.
3. Instead of changing your behavior, change your story
Habits and resolutions are essentially about changing the kind of person you are.
We all have a story about what kind of person we are and what’s important to us. We say ‘I’m the kind of person who tries new things’, or ‘I don’t smoke’. And while these stories seem set in stone, they aren’t.
In his book, Redirect, psychology professor Timothy Wilson describes how we can use these stories to change behavior long-term. One technique is called ‘story-editing’.
Here’s how it works:
- Start by writing out your existing ‘story’ as honestly as possible. This could be simply talking about who you are or a list of statements like ‘I am the kind of person who does X, Y, and Z.’
- Pay special attention to anything in that story that goes against the new behaviors you want to build. For example, if you’re the kind of person who has late-night snacks, this goes against your goal of being healthier.
- Now rewrite the story. Use the same format, except this time say what you want your story to be. Tell the story of someone who has made the behavior changes you want to see. For example, ‘I’m the kind of person who wakes up early to work on my novel.’
It may seem too simple, but the research shows that this simple intervention can have long-lasting results. Or, as author Kurt Vonnegut put it:
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
4. Make sure your routine allows the right space and time for your resolutions
Sometimes sticking to your New Year’s resolutions is less about what they are and more about when you do them.
If your current routine and schedule give you no time for anything new, how can you be expected to keep up with your resolutions?
Or, if your only available time is when you’re naturally tired or have lower energy, how will you make the progress you want to see?
Too many of us ignore the natural highs and lows of energy we go through each day. Planning your resolutions without taking this into account means that you’ll most likely hit a wall.
So what does this mean?
First, try and set a schedule for when you’ll work on your resolutions.
If your New Year’s resolution requires dedicated time (like going to the gym), put it in your calendar. In the same way you might timeblock your work schedule, adding in dedicated time for your resolutions makes them a priority.
Then, make a plan for when life inevitably gets in the way.
Trying to stick to an inflexible schedule isn’t a great way to build habits. Instead, you should have a plan for when life gets in the way.
Psychologist Dr. Oettingen calls her technique for this W.O.O.P:
- Wish: What do you want?
- Outcome: What would the ideal outcome be? What will your life look like when you hit your goal?
- Obstacle: You know yourself. What will try to stop you? What has sidelined you before?
- Plan: How will you get around it?
Spend a few minutes answering these questions with a special focus on the obstacle. Dig deep. What do you know about yourself that will get in the way of your resolution? How can you get around it or avoid it in the first place?
5. Set up a system to reward and remind you of why you’re doing this
It’s easy to stay motivated in the early days of the year. But after an especially hard gym session or in the dark hours of the morning when you’re staring at a blank screen, it can be difficult to remember why this matters to you.
While setting the right resolutions is the best way to counter these feelings, you’ll still face moments where you’ve lost motivation.
In these cases, it’s good to set up a system of rewards and reminders to keep you going.
For example, you could:
- Write a list of reasons why you want to achieve this goal. What do you have to gain? What’s your core value that you’re working towards? Keep this handy and revisit it whenever you feel lost.
- Tell your close friends and family what you’re doing and ask them to check-in. Support is key to making changes. And the more public you are, the easier it will be to stay accountable and motivated.
- Give yourself a daily reward for hitting your goal. What will make you feel motivated to stick with your new behavior every day? This could be something symbolic like ticking a box on your calendar or physical like a (small) piece of chocolate or some other indulgence.
Lastly, automate your rewards and reminders as much as possible. It’s hard to always hold yourself accountable for behavior change. That’s where a tool like RescueTime can help.
If your New Year’s resolution involves using your digital devices, RescueTime can automatically track your progress, tell you when you’ve hit your goal, or nudge you back on track when you slip.
Why even a failed New Year’s resolution is a success
The New Year is the perfect time to commit to real change. But even if you don’t hit your big, audacious goals, just working towards them is a step in the right direction.
In fact, one study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that people who set New Year’s resolutions are 10X as likely to actually change their behaviors than those who don’t set yearly goals.
More than that, you can turn a failed resolution into something more positive in a number of ways:
- Learn from your mistakes. It sucks to miss a goal. But within that is a chance to evaluate what worked and what didn’t while things were going well. Was the issue in your plan? Expectations? The goal itself? Knowing this will help you with your future resolutions.
- Use it as a ‘fresh start’ moment. Viewing your ‘miss’ as a fresh start moment helps you remove the mental baggage of your past goal. Don’t dwell on what didn’t work. Instead, look forward.
- Work on your self talk. You’re not a ‘failure’ if you relapse into a bad habit, miss a goal, or give up on your resolution. The language you use when you think about your resolution can change how successful you are in the future. Try to reframe why you missed your goal into something positive. What did you learn? What problems got in your way that you can solve next time?
What helps you stay committed to your New Year’s resolutions all year long? Let us know in the comments below!