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How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions Using Science

Kristin Hall, FNP
Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP Written by Our Editorial Team Last updated 7/05/2020

Alright fellas, we’re officially into February now, and we just wanted to check in to see how those New Year’s resolutions are coming along. Are you still in the gym five days a week? Are you still eating out less often? How much money from your last paycheck did you put away for that celebratory vacation, or that house you spent 2018 dreaming of? How about that “Read one new book a week” trip you were on?

If things are still going strong, awesome—we’re proud of you. But if you already feel yourself falling off the wagon—or have completely hopped off and set the wagon on fire behind you—it’s important for you to know that’s perfectly normal. In fact, reports show that by the second week of February (That’s only six weeks in to our year-long resolutions, for those keeping score at home), over 80% of people have already given up on their resolutions. See? You’re feeling better about it already.

But what if we told you that there were little, scientifically proven things you could be doing to help your resolutions stick? Well, that’s exactly what we’re saying.

Goals Are All About “Micro” VS. “Macro”

Setting goals is crucial to any successful bid at a New Year’s resolution. In fact, our resolutions are our goals.

However, it’s also important to keep in mind that setting goals is easy; keeping the goalposts in sight and managing your expectations of those goals, however, takes time.

Let’s say, for instance, you’re trying to quit smoking cigarettes. Quitting smoking cold turkey (which means stopping completely and all at once) is an extremely difficult task. Depending on how long you’ve been smoking and your body’s chemical addiction to nicotine, the withdrawal symptoms of nicotine addiction can be brutal. 

However, setting tiny goals for yourself—starting at half a pack a day, then reducing your cigarette intake daily until you’re finally at one a day and then none a day—is an excellent way to go about quitting. There’s science to back that up.

Remember: You have a year to accomplish your goal. Setting small goals for yourself in order to help reach that one, big, ultimate goal is the route to take.

Find Your People and Stick to Them

Another monumental aspect to keeping to your New Year’s resolutions is having the appropriate network of support to help keep you on the right path.

Some people out there love going to the gym every day (We call them “psychopaths”). The rest of us often need a gentle push every now and again.

2011 meta-analysis of 38 studies on the effects of group goals in performance found that one of the three most important characteristics to help boosting people’s desire (and ultimate effectiveness) in setting and attaining their goals is having a group dynamic. Having people there to keep pushing you toward your goal is an excellent way to be held accountable to sticking to it.

For reference’s sake, the other two were being specific in your end goal, and make sure you’re setting sizable goals for yourself.

Be SMART, You Idiot

Another important aspect of keeping to your New Year’s resolution is to make sure the goal you’re setting is something that can be quantifiably measured.  Whether you want to lose a specific amount of weight, read a specific amount of books, get a job at a specific salary, etc., it’s important to make sure your goals and progress are measurable.

An article published in Harvard University’s Health Blog highlights the importance of keeping your goals SMART:  Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely.

So, for instance, if your resolution for the year is to be “more successful,” you’re setting yourself up to fail. Being successful is an excellent goal to have, but it’s how you quantify and measure your success that’ll help you actually get there.

How do you want to become more successful? Are you looking to finish your Master’s Degree? Are you trying to write another book? Are you looking to start a business?

Setting specific goals that give you a way to actually measure the steps you’re taking to attain them is the definite way to approach things—not just in your New Year’s resolutions, but in your everyday life.

Learn, Know and Understand the Habit Loop

Out of context, if you probably heard the term “habit loop,” you’d think it meant something terrible. It just sounds bad. But that’s not the case.

In his New York Times bestselling book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, reporter and author Chris Duhigg explains how we can take advantage of certain natural human behaviors in order to live more productive lives.

One of the things he stresses most in his book is how we should use the “Habit Loop” to help us “create” new habits. The “Habit Loop” has three components:

  •      The Trigger: The trigger is the event that stars the new habit. Essentially, the “trigger” is your New Year’s resolution
  •      The Routine: The routine is the behavior that you perform in order to meet your goal. So, if your resolution is to get fit, your routine would be going to the gym.
  •      The Reward: The reward, obviously, is the thing we benefits we gain from the behavior. So, if getting fit is your goal and going to the gym is your behavior, washboard abs are your reward.

Boom! Science, bitch!

Don’t Fall Into the “What-The-Hell Effect” Pit

Every human being is equipped with a psychological willpower instinct. It’s more commonly known as your “What-the-Hell Effect.” And while it sounds awesome, it’s actually terrible for keeping to New Year’s resolutions.

So, let’s say your resolution is to eat healthier in the New Year. It’s a noble resolution, and one that’s definitely not easy attain.

The first three weeks of January, you’re killing it. You’re watching your calories, you’re cutting out sugars, you’re not eating junk food. You’re well on your way to becoming an Instagram fitness model.

But then the day finally comes: Your colleagues are going out for beers and appetizers after work one Wednesday afternoon. You tell them you won’t be coming along, and after they essentially berate you for the next two hours, you cave and decide to go.

What can one beer hurt, right?

Well, you get to the bar after work, and one beer has turned into four beers. You’re hungry, and since you already “whoopsie’d” those four beers down your gullet, you decide a personal pizza can’t hurt, because life is a thin-crust bastard—with extra cheese. That, gentlemen, is the “What-the-Hell Effect.” Ahh, it sounds familiar?

Well, if you know how that night goes, you also know how the next morning feels: That instantaneous shame and regret you feel, the moment you crack your eyes, pizza crumbs still spattered on your face, pepperoni grease on your fingertips. Oof. What have you done, Greg? But that shame and guilt we feel is ultimately the driving force that pushes us back on the straight and narrow.

The trick, however, is to never wind up there to begin with. Avoid the “What-the-Hell Effect” at all costs.

Don’t Fantasize About Success—Plan and Execute.

This one sounds a little strange, because we generally like to think that dreaming about obtaining our goals is a great way to motivate ourselves to do it.

But there’s a lot of research out there that indicates that fantasizing about our goals can actually be dangerous to achieving them, because it doesn’t necessarily incentivize us to do those things.

It’s completely natural to dream every so often about the things we want and the goals we want to achieve. But it’s important to understand that these are only fantasies, and that the only real way to make shit happen is to plan effectively and execute. Period. Stop dreaming about doing the damn thing and get out there and do it.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.