Sunday Scaries

4 science-backed strategies to finally achieve your New Year’s resolutions

“The traditional ways set people up to feel guilty and generally bad.”

New Year’s resolutions get a lot of flak. On the one hand, it’s fair to be a hater: An estimated two-thirds of people give up on their resolutions within the first month of making them. Attaching your hopes and dreams to one night of the year is so arbitrary it is perhaps not surprising things don’t go to plan.

But as bad as we are at following through on our plans, it’s human nature to try and sync a major lifestyle change with a moment in time. Scientists call it “the fresh start effect” and it motivates aspirational behaviors and big-picture thinking. In this sense, New Year’s resolutions can be “a rather effective strategy for behavior change,” Martin Oscarsson tells me. Oscarsson is a licensed psychologist and research assistant at Stockholm University.

In a 2020 study on New Year’s resolutions published in the journal PLOS One, Oscarsson and his team reveal how successful 1,066 people from Sweden were in keeping their own resolution.

Curiously, they found people who set “approach-oriented” goals were significantly more successful than those who went after “avoidance-oriented” goals. In other words, goals to do with adding something new, rather than taking something away from one’s lifestyle, were easier to stick to. In practical terms, the difference would be between a resolution like, “this year I’m going to start running,” and the resolution, “this year I am going to lose weight.”

So New Year’s resolutions can be good — we might just be bad at framing them. To be successful, then, experts say it’s wise to start small, be specific, and choose goals that add value to our lives.

Creating tiny habits

In 2010, BJ Fogg, who runs the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University, wanted to help people become healthier and happier — a quest that led him to create Tiny Habits, a behavior-changing method and the subsequent name of his book on the topic.

Tiny Habits is founded on the Fogg Behavioral Model, which states three elements are essential for people to change their behavior:

  • Motivation
  • Ability
  • A prompt

Motivation is fickle and inconsistent, so Fogg put more focus on the other two factors — ability and prompt — and more specifically, emphasis on doing easily executed efforts toward change that are within the abilities we already have now.

Revelers smooch on New Year’s Eve in 1948. Getty Images/Bettmann

The biggest mistake people can make when going after a goal is to go after something abstract, Fogg says. Tiny Habits makes the case for the opposite approach: Pick something extremely specific and then make it as easy as possible for yourself.

“The best option is to pick habits that you actually want, not habits that feel like ‘shoulds’,” Fogg tells me.

“The next option is to help yourself feel successful with your new habit. The feeling of success causes a behavior to become automatic — a habit. But it also motivates you to continue,” he adds. “It’s just four words: Help yourself feel successful.”

“It’s just four words: Help yourself feel successful.”

Fogg points to a common resolution: wanting to exercise. It’s an abstract idea — there are so many different ways to exercise, after all. In his own life, Fogg wanted to make a similar change but he chose something specific and then made it easy to do: He wanted to surf and he moved to Maui. Now he surfs every morning (unless there are sharks out — then he uses a Hydrow).

While we can’t all relocate to paradise, the point is that these actions are contrary to traditional wisdom on how to build good habits.

“The traditional ways set people up to feel guilty and generally bad,” Fogg says. “That’s why those approaches don’t work well.”

The right approach for achieving goals

Like Fogg, Oscarsson uses his own research to inform how he sets and achieves goals. He tries to “phrase my own personal goals in terms of approach rather than avoidance,” he says, and a few other things to increase his chances of success, such as:

  • Setting more specific goals
  • Making goals measurable
  • Setting deadlines

He also suggests joining forces with a friend, family member, or colleague and working together toward a mutual goal — better known as “accountability buddies.” But ultimately, you have to actually want it.

“I also want to stress the importance of focusing on changes that you really want to make,” Oscarsson says.

“I feel like we often pledge to change for other people’s sake, or because we would be ashamed if we didn’t. Such resolutions are often difficult to sustain long-term, and seldom give us the same sense of accomplishment as those we truly believe in.”

It’s easy to dismiss the things we want and instead force ourselves to try and follow a grander, transformational agenda. But in general, the little things can add up to bigger shifts. As Fogg says, “change leads to change.”

“When you feel successful, even on a habit that’s tiny, then you are motivated to do more,” he explains.

It is a virtuous cycle: The more successful you are, the more motivated you become, and the greater your ability to make harder changes and build stronger habits.

When you feel successful, your identity changes — leading to more and bigger changes, “even if you don’t deliberately set goals or plan for it,” Fogg says.

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