The Psychology of Successful New Year’s Resolutions: Why They Work

new year's resolution

You probably don’t have to think too hard to identify a change you’d like to make in the new year. What’s tougher is building a New Year’s resolution around it.

Simply knowing you want to do something — or not do something — is rarely enough. Just ask the nearly 50 percent of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions, 92 percent of whom fail. The key to success is knowing what works about New Year’s resolutions, what isn’t successful, and why.

What works

1. Set one small goal at a time

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a big change in your life. But the bigger it is, the harder it is to realize.

Set yourself up for success by making a smaller goal that supports the big one. If it proves an easy one to accomplish, great. Then you’re freed up to make another resolution toward the same bigger goal; step by step, you’re getting there.

“Setting small, attainable goals throughout the year, instead of a singular, overwhelming goal on January 1 can help you reach whatever it is you strive for,” says psychologist Lynn Bufka, Associate Executive Director of the American Psychological Association’s Practice Research and Policy.

“Remember, 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.”

2. Make the goal specific

The more specific the language of your New Year’s resolution, the more actionable it will be. “Pay down debt” is a great goal, but you’ll need a plan to make it happen. What’s better is setting a goal like, “Make a $100 payment toward my credit card balance every month.”

3. Work your New Year’s resolution into your schedule

The greater the time commitment necessary to achieve your goal, the more important it is to schedule accordingly.

Resolving to run three times a week is a specific goal, but without a schedule for making it happen it’s far too easy to forget or procrastinate. Add specific days and times for running into your calendar.

4. Reach out for support

Only you can accomplish your goal, but other people can lend their support. Even if you only need one pep talk over the course of the year, isn’t it worth confiding in someone if it means staying on track?

That’s not to say everyone needs to know what you’re hoping to accomplish, but pick a trusted loved one or two to talk to about it. Joining a group with similar goals — online or off — helps, too.

5. Track your progress

Check in with yourself now and then. What about your resolution is working and what’s not?

There’s no rule that says the resolution you make on January 1st must go unchanged all year long. In fact, the more open you are to making tweaks to the small goals you set, the further along you’ll likely be toward your bigger goal by the end of the year.

What doesn’t work

1. Trying to stop something

There’s nothing wrong with putting an end to a bad habit, but the key lies in replacing it with something else.

“You can’t learn not to do something,” says psychology professor and author Art Markman. “So if you focus yourself only on stopping behaviors, you will never develop new habits.”

For instance, let’s say you want to stop spending so much money on food. Instead of aiming to stop eating out, your New Year’s resolution might be something like, “Spend Sunday’s cooking and freezing meals for the week.”

2. All-or-nothing thinking

One of the biggest mistakes people make with New Year resolutions is believing their execution has to be perfect — that if you skip a month on your $100 credit card payment, miss a scheduled time to run, or eat out every day for a week, the resolution is ruined and none of it is worth doing anymore.

On the contrary, why let one slip-up (or any number of them) be a deal breaker for something that you obviously want so much?

3. Beating yourself up when you let a resolution go

If you can hold onto your resolution — especially after slipping up — great. If you can make tweaks to improve it, even better.

But if you decide to chuck the whole thing, that’s okay, too. Make another one, or don’t. New Year’s resolution ideas should be fun, inspiring tools, not stressful obligations.

No matter how prepared you are, there are no guaranteed means of making a New Year’s resolution succeed. But one thing you can always count on is this: Whether you call it a resolution or not, every moment all year long brings with it a new opportunity for change.

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