New Year, New Resolutions

Qinthara Fasya | 4 January 2022

How do we make resolutions that actually stick?

Once again, it’s that time of year. “What’s your New Year’s resolution?” your friends, family, and coworkers are asking now that the champagne bottles have been popped and the balls have fallen.

Some individuals like the New Year’s resolution tradition of setting a goal. Others claim that it’s a waste of time because the majority of resolutions fail by the middle of March. Despite the bleak statistics, there is rationality in joining the New Year’s resolution bandwagon. Let us explore science-based tips for sticking to your resolutions, according to Katy Milkman from CNN.

1. Make a cue-based plan

Just as cues tell Broadway stars when to step onto the stage, research has shown that adding a cue to your plan helps you remember when to act. Be sure to detail when and where you’ll follow through.

If your New Year’s resolution is to meditate five days each week, a plan like “I’ll meditate on weekdays” would be too vague. But a cue-based plan like “I’ll meditate at the office on weekdays during my lunch break” would fit the bill.

Plotting when and where you’ll execute on your New Year’s resolution jogs your memory when it’s opportune and generates guilt if you flake out. (Putting your plan on the calendar and setting a digital reminder wouldn’t hurt either.) Detailed planning can also help you anticipate and dodge obstacles — so if you plan to meditate during lunch, you’ll be sure to decline a proffered lunch meeting.

2. Consider a penalty clause

This may sound sinister, but ensuring you’ll face some penalty if you don’t achieve your New Year’s resolution can work wonders.

One easy way to do this is by telling a few people about your goal so you’ll feel ashamed if they check back later and find out you haven’t followed through. (Telling all your social media followers would up the ante further).

A steeper penalty than shame, however, is putting cold hard cash on the table, and there is excellent evidence that self-imposed cash penalties motivate success. You can make a bet with a friend that you’ll stick to your New Year’s resolution or pay. Alternatively, technology can help. Websites like StickK.com and Beeminder.com invite you to put money on the line that you’ll have to forfeit to a charity if you don’t achieve a stated goal. You just have to name a referee and set the stakes.

The logic for why this works is simple. Incentives change our decisions, and penalties are even more motivating than rewards. We’re used to being fined for our missteps by outsiders (governments, health plans, neighborhood associations) but this time you’re fining yourself for misbehavior.

3. Make it Fun

Most of us strive for efficiency when it comes to achieving our goals. If you want to get fit, you figure a punishing workout will be just the thing to produce rapid progress. If you want to ace a class, you assume long, distraction-free study sessions are key. But research has shown that focusing on efficiency can leave you high and dry because you’ll neglect an even more important part of the equation: whether you enjoy the act of goal pursuit.

Embarking on a difficult workout may sound like a great way to see progress fast, but research has shown incorporating a fun element will help you stick with it.

If it’s not fun to exercise or study, you’re unlikely to keep at it. But if you get pleasure from your workouts or study sessions, research has found you’ll persist longer. And in the end, that’s what often matters most to achieving a New Year’s resolution.

One way to make pursuing a goal that normally feels like a chore more fun is to combine it with a guilty pleasure. I call this “temptation bundling.” Consider only letting yourself watch your favorite TV show at the gym so you’ll start looking forward to workouts. Or only letting yourself drink a mocha latte during study sessions so there is a hook to get you to the library. My own research shows that temptation bundling can come in handy when you might otherwise abandon your New Year’s resolution.

4. Allow for emergencies

If you deviate at all from your New Year’s resolution, your instinct may be to declare yourself a failure and throw in the towel. Researchers call this the “what the hell effect.” Here’s what it looks like: You planned to get to bed early every night but couldn’t resist staying up late one Friday to watch an extra episode of “Succession.” After that, your early-to-bed plans went out the window because “what the hell,” you’d already failed.

Happily, there is a way to dodge this fate. By setting tough goals (like a 10 p.m. bedtime every night) but giving yourself one or two get-out-of-jail-free cards each week, you can get better results than by setting either tough or easy goals without wiggle room, research has revealed. Your stretch goal keeps you motivated, and the ability to declare an “emergency” (rather than saying “what the hell”) keeps you pushing forward after a misstep.

5. Get a little help from friends

Spending time around high achievers can boost your own performance. If your New Year’s resolution is to run a marathon or write a book, you’d be wise to start hanging around friends who’ve made it to the finish line (literally or figuratively) and can show you how it’s done. You’ll pick up a bit just by spending time together because you’ll be inclined to conform to their patterns of behavior. But my research and studies done by others show that if you explicitly ask successful friends how they achieved a shared goal and try out those tactics yourself, you’ll gain even more ground.

Strangely enough, there is evidence that coaching friends with shared goals can improve your success rate, too. When you’re on the hook to give someone else tips on how to achieve, it boosts your self-confidence (why would they listen to you if you didn’t have something to offer?). It also forces you to be introspective about what works in ways you might not otherwise. And of course, you’ll feel hypocritical if you don’t follow your own words of wisdom.

Happily, pursuing your New Year’s resolutions with friends is also fun, and that’s another key to success (see above).