Did you make a New Years resolution this year? If so, you’re in good company: about half of American adults make a resolution at New Years every year. The most common resolutions are to quit smoking, to lose weight, and to start exercising.
But you likely are aware — and you don’t need a mountain of memes to tell you — that many people just don’t keep their resolutions.
But none of those sources cite actual studies (crazy, right?). Well I’m a geek, so I went to check out the scientific research to see how bad we are at keeping resolutions.
It turns out that the research is much more optimistic. One study of college students found that 75% were still successful in their resolutions after almost four months. Another study of individuals trying to quit smoking found that 34% were still not smoking after one month, and 25% were not smoking after a year.
The most recent study we found suggested that 46% of individuals who made resolutions were still successfully accomplishing their goal at 6 months — and they were over ten times more likely to accomplish their goals than people who did not make resolutions.
So, if you made a resolution this year, good for you. You’re likely better off than if you didn’t.
And we want to help you make sure you’re successful. We’ve combed the research looking for ways that you can increase your odds of success at keeping your resolutions. This article presents some evidence-based strategies that you can adopt to increase the likelihood that you succeed in keeping your New Years’ resolutions.
Predictors of Keeping Resolutions
There are a number of factors that predict whether you will be successful at keeping your resolutions.
Readiness to change.
People won’t change if they don’t want to or are not ready. You may be familiar with this if you’ve ever tried to prod a loved one into more healthy behavior… if they’re not ready, no amount of nagging by you will change them. The motivation for change has to come from the person himself or herself. Being ready for a change makes you much more likely to keep your resolutions.
Self-efficacy is basically how much you believe you’re able to do something — in this case, how much you believe that you are able to keep your resolution to change your behavior. People who have high self-efficacy to change, or high belief in their ability to make a change in their behavior, are more likely to actually keep their resolutions. Those individuals with high self-efficacy of maintenance, or a high belief in their ability to continue the change in the long term, were also more successful.
Strategies to Keep Resolutions
Okay, so readiness to change and self-efficacy are related to success… but what can you do to increase your chance of success? Here are some strategies.
Choose resolutions you actually care about.
One of the biggest factors in keeping resolutions is that you have a genuine intrinsic motivation for change — you have to care about it. If you don’t really care about the resolution, you’re unlikely to keep it. So make sure you choose something that you really feel strongly about it.
To maintain your motivation through the year, you can use several strategies. Write down your goal and also why you want to achieve it. Then post this in a place you can see it regularly so you’re reminded about it constantly. When you feel your motivation lagging, go back to that goal and remind yourself why you made it in the first place.
Make your resolutions SMART.
We are more likely to achieve our goals when they are created in a way that help us stay focused on them. Many people suggest making goals using the SMART acronym:
S – Specific: define what exactly is being pursued.
M – Measureable: is there a number or other criteria you can track?
A – Attainable: can the goal be achieved? Is it possible?
R – Realistic: are you able to do it at this moment?
T – Time-bound: set a time frame for the goal.
So, rather than saying, “I want to lose weight this year” make your goal more specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound: “I want to lose 10 pounds by March.” You might even specify the way you’ll lose the weight: “I will lift weights twice a week and do cardiovascular exercise for 30 minutes another two times a week. I will also implement intermittent fasting.”
Or, rather than, “I want to quit smoking” a SMART goal could be, “I want to smoke less than 3 cigarettes a day by March, and then only one cigarette day by May. By June I want to fully quit.”
Formulating your goals like this makes you more likely to succeed.
Make one change at a time.
Have you ever tried to change everything at once? Were you successful?
Probably not. Lots of our behavior is determined by our habits. When we try to make changes that are too big, too quickly, we are often unsuccessful because it gets exhausting and we revert back to our habits. Our lack of success can feel discouraging, which keeps us from continuing to pursue our goals.
On the other hand, it can be really motivating when we are successful — even at accomplishing something small. You will feel encouraged to continue pursuing a goal if you see small successes.
It takes effort to change our habits, but it can be done if we maintain the changes for long enough. Starting small will make you more likely to be successful, and those small successes will be rewarding.
So start small. Change one thing at a time. Then, you can use the motivation from succeeding for the next change… and so on.
Addictions research suggests that it typically takes as many as 30 attempts for a person to quit smoking to become abstinent. That sounds like a lot. But it also suggests that we should think about changing behavior as a process, and that we will likely “relapse” into our old behaviors at least a few times.
Don’t be discouraged by this. Use it as an opportunity to reflect and to recommit to your goal. And then try again.
If you plan to go to the gym 3 times a week, and then don’t go at all for one week, don’t give up. Try again the next week. Did you eat sugar outside of your cheat day? Try not to the next week. After a while, you’ll start doing better.
Share your resolution.
It’s easier to give up when you’re the only person you’re accountable to. That’s why it’s great to bring other people in on the goal — we’re less comfortable cheating on other people than we are on ourselves!
So share your goal with your friends and find ways to keep each other accountable.
Better yet, resolve together. You could even make the same resolutions as someone else and help each other achieve them. Do you and your partner both want to eat better (or, more specifically “eat junk food less than two times per week”)? Well, remind each other not to buy that bag of chips when you’re grocery shopping together.
Or, do you and your work colleague want to get in shape? Commit to going running together at lunch a few times a week. Find someone that shares your goal and work together with them. It will help you stay motivated and be successful.
Resolve all year.
New Years offers a special opportunity for reflection and planning, but it’s not the only time we can think about changing our behavior. There’s no logical reason you can’t make resolutions all year
I’ve recently read The 12-week Year by Brian Moran and Michael Lennington. It basically encourages you to think about each week as a month, and each 12 weeks as a year. The idea is that this helps you stick to your goals better. It also gives you 3 extra “New Years” a year, increasing your opportunities to reflect and plan your new goals. They argue that this makes you more productive.
Following this system would help give you more opportunities to re-commit to your resolution and make you more successful. To keep your resolutions, don’t just make them at New Years. Come back to them all year, re-commit, and re-resolve.