Science Reveals How to Succeed with New Year's Resolutions


As we wind down this year and look forward to the New Year, you may be part of the 40-50% of Americans making New Year’s resolutions. According to research, the most popular goals relate to weight loss, smoking cessation, and exercise. Let’s look at what makes for successful resolutions and the tools to build lasting behavior change.

Believe. Make Sure You’re Ready.

A study from Professor John C. Norcross at the University of Scranton found that successful resolvers shared three characteristics:

  • Self-confidence that they can change

  • Self-confidence that they can maintain

  • Readiness to change

The researchers found that without those combined traits, resolvers were significantly less successful. Interestingly, the desire to change, social support, and having the skills to change did not predict success. In my own experience, self-confidence comes from two beliefs:

  • if Life is presenting me with this opportunity, I’m capable

  • I’ve done difficult, new, and scary things before and I can do them again

Know Thyself

Noba (a free online psychology textbook portal) offers a chapter on motives and goals. According to the chapter, knowing your mental framework goes a long way in creating strategies that work for you. For example:

  1. Are you extrinsically or intrinsically motivated? Extrinsically motivated people often do well pairing up with an accountability buddy. Check out from Yale University. It's a free platform to share your goal quest and get support from others. Or do you easily stay motivated because you enjoy an activity, regardless of who’s around?

  2. Is this an “ought” or a “want”? It can make a difference whether you're focused on quitting smoking because you know the health risks. On the other hand, you may want to quit smoking so you can join a group on a biking vacation.

  3. How strong is your self-control muscle? This muscle varies by individual and by situation; it can fatigue with overuse yet also strengthened. I’m an Olympian at resisting anything with caramel (ick!). But put me in a bookstore and resistance is tough.

Try These

Now that you have a better idea of how complex your mental framework can be, here are four strategies for ensuring success with your resolutions:

  1. If you want to eat healthier: aim for good taste instead of only focusing on the health benefits. Hate kale? Don't eat it. There are plenty of choices that are healthy. it's OK to ditch healthy food that you don't like. (I recently took raw carrots off my "ought" list.)

  2. If you want to overcome procrastination with chores: add fun elements, according to author and comedian Andy Boyle. In Adulthood for Beginners (a humorous guide to navigating your 20s) Andy advises: don’t avoid chores—gamify them. Some ways to trick your brain into thinking a chore is fun: play peppy music while paying bills, try to beat your record for how fast you can fold laundry, get colorful lunch bags, use a crayon to write your grocery list.

  3. If you want to accomplish anything: set bite-sized benchmarks. According to this article in Chicago Booth Review, high motivation occurs at the beginning and end of a project. So “break a goal into shorter subgoals to maximize beginnings and ends, and to minimize middles." Instead of "create a blog", divide this project into mini goals: brainstorm for 15 minutes, write the ugly first draft, group similar ideas into paragraphs, edit, spend 15 minutes searching for a photo, etc. This creates the Fresh Start Effect so we're constantly excited about the next benchmark.

  4. If you want to ensure success on January 1: start now. Want to eat better? Don't wait to remove junk food from your kitchen. Then stock your pantry with healthy food you like eating. New habits take 90 days to become routine so start now.

I hope you’re now more aware of the complexities of motivations and goals, and why past resolutions might have been frustrating. If you'd like help implementing these ideas any time of the year, schedule a chat.

Judy Dang