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January 4, 2017

The science behind keeping your New Year's resolutions

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Dec. 23, 2020.

We all know the New Year's resolution drill: Start strong—and then sputter out. But there are research-backed approaches that can maximize your chances of success.

Start by picking the right goal

First things first: No matter how much you learn about the science of hacking your habits, you aren't likely to achieve your New Year's resolutions unless you set the right goal.

Jonathan Jackson, director of the Center for Psychological Services and Practicum Training at the Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies, says its important to be realistic and select goals that are incremental and achievable.

And remind yourself why those goals matter. For instance, you could say to yourself "I'm doing it for my kids," suggests Tim Bono, assistant dean and lecturer on psychological and brain science at Washington University in St. Louis. "Research shows that reminding yourself of that will keep you motivated."

Identify 'context clues' that are roadblocks to change

Next, it's important to identify forces that may stand in the way of your resolution. Many people try to change their habits through sheer force of will—but that approach often fails because our existing habits are difficult to dislodge.

Anne Swinbourne, a senior lecturer at James Cook University, and Rebekah Boynton, a PhD candidate at James Cook, write in The Conversation that you should instead leverage the science of behaviorism, a psychological perspective "that tries to understand human and animal behavior by studying observable behavior and events" rather than subjective factors, such as moods or feelings.

In practical terms, this means that to understand why you feel compelled to carry out a habit, you should examine "context clues:" where the habit occurs, what objects are present when it occurs, and what consequences result.

For example, you might notice that you tend to drink alcohol on Fridays after work when you stop by a bar on the way home from work. If you want to drink less alcohol, you should avoid the bar on Fridays.

The method may seem simple, but Swinbourne and Boynton say it's a more effective, practical approach to changing habits than relying on sheer motivation.

Practice mindfulness to re-train your brain

Once you've identified the roadblocks to change, it's time for the hard part: actually sticking to your resolution.

Tim Pychyl, a psychologist at Carleton University, explains that it's so easy to fall back into bad habits because those behaviors are the result of deeply connected circuits of neurons. In a meaningful sense, your brain may be wired to stay on the couch instead of hitting the gym.

A key way to rewire your brain, Pychyl says, is to practice mindfulness—a manner of viewing the world and emotions in a detached, unbiased way. For example, your brain may feel deep-seated dread about the idea of going for a run: "If you haven't been excited about exercising in the past, you aren't likely going to be in the future," Pychyl says.

But through mindfulness, you can recognize that this connection is arbitrary and that you could instead associate positive emotions with running. "There are physiological changes in the plastic brain that happen when we develop some ability to bring nonjudgmental awareness to the world," Pychyl explains.

Hold yourself accountable to others—or to your future self

The ultimate trick to completing your resolution may be accountability, according to a study from the Dominican University of California. In that study, more than 70 percent of participants who wrote down their goals and provided an "accountability partner" with weekly updates on their progress said they accomplished their goals. In contrast, only 35 percent of participants who wrote down their goals and kept them to themselves reported similar success. 

If an "accountability partner" doesn't do the trick, try holding yourself accountable to your own future self. Hal Hershfield, a marketing professor at UCLA's School of Management, conducted a study in which students looked at images of themselves that had been manipulated to look older. The images helped the students to foster empathy for their future selves and, as a result, made them less likely to delay completing their schoolwork and studying for exams.

And finally, make sure that you have a plan for handling the inevitable instances when you slip up. "You might get lazy, tired, forget, or lured away by another temptation," Bono says. "Then identify contingency plans for how you will respond in those moments" (Vozza, Fast Company, 12/29; Maldarelli, Popular Science, 12/29; Boynton/Swinbourne, The Conversation, 12/29).

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