Editor’s Note: Award-winning behavioral scientist Katy Milkman is the James G. Dinan Professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, author of “How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be,” cofounder of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative, and the host of Charles Schwab’s “Choiceology” podcast.
It’s that time of year again. Champagne bottles have been popped, balls have dropped, and now your friends, family and colleagues are starting to ask, “What’s your New Year’s resolution?”
Some people love the tradition of setting a goal each January 1. Others argue it’s a waste of time since most resolutions fail by mid-March. But there is actually a logic to jumping on the New Year’s resolution bandwagon, despite the grim numbers.
My collaborators and I have shown that on new beginnings — dates like New Year’s Day, your birthday and even Mondays — you’re extra motivated to tackle your goals because you feel like you can turn the page on past failures. Maybe you meant to quit smoking, get fit or start going to bed at a reasonable hour last year and didn’t. A fresh start like New Year’s lets you relegate those missteps to a past chapter and tell yourself, “That was the old me, but the new me will be different.”
It might sound delusional, but it’s quite handy to be able to let go of failures and try again. After all, you can’t accomplish anything if you don’t attempt it, and a lot of goals worth achieving can be tricky to nail the first time around.
If you want to boost your chances of sticking to your 2023 New Year’s resolution, behavioral scientists have discovered a host of techniques that can help. These tactics are most useful if you’ve chosen a goal that’s concrete and bite-size. That means you’ll want to avoid vague goals like “I’ll exercise more” and instead set specific goals like “I’ll work out four times a week.”
Here are my five favorite science-based tips for sticking to your resolutions, sourced from my book, “How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.”
Print out or save this PDF to help you set your goals.
Just as cues tell Broadway stars when to step onto the stage, research has shown that adding a cue to your plan helps you remember when to act. Be sure to detail when and where you’ll follow through.
If your New Year’s resolution is to meditate five days each week, a plan like “I’ll meditate on weekdays” would be too vague. But a cue-based plan like “I’ll meditate at the office on weekdays during my lunch break” would fit the bill.
Plotting when and where you’ll execute on your resolution jogs your memory when it’s opportune and generates guilt if you flake out. (Putting your plan on the calendar and setting a digital reminder wouldn’t hurt either.) Detailed planning can also help you anticipate and dodge obstacles – so if you plan to meditate during lunch, you’ll be sure to decline a proffered lunch meeting.
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This may sound sinister, but ensuring you’ll face some penalty if you don’t achieve your New Year’s resolution can work wonders.
One easy way to do this is by telling a few people about your goal so you’ll feel ashamed if they check back later and find out you haven’t followed through. (Telling all your social media followers would up the ante further).
A steeper penalty than shame, however, is putting cold hard cash on the table, and there is excellent evidence that self-imposed cash penalties motivate success. You can make a bet with a friend that you’ll stick to your New Year’s resolution or pay. Alternatively, technology can help. Websites like StickK.com and Beeminder.com invite you to put money on the line that you’ll have to forfeit to a charity if you don’t achieve a stated goal. You just have to name a referee and set the stakes.
The logic for why this works is simple. Incentives change our decisions, and penalties are even more motivating than rewards. We’re used to being fined for our missteps by outsiders (governments, health plans, neighborhood associations) but this time you’re fining yourself for misbehavior.
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Most of us strive for efficiency when it comes to achieving our goals. If you want to get fit, you figure a punishing workout will be just the thing to produce rapid progress. If you want to ace a class, you assume long, distraction-free study sessions are key. But research has shown that focusing on efficiency can leave you high and dry because you’ll neglect an even more important part of the equation: whether you enjoy the act of goal pursuit.
If it’s not fun to exercise or study, you’re unlikely to keep at it. But if you get pleasure from your workouts or study sessions, research has found you’ll persist longer. And in the end, that’s what often matters most to achieving a resolution.
One way to make pursuing a goal that normally feels like a chore more fun is to combine it with a guilty pleasure. I call this “temptation bundling.” Consider only letting yourself watch your favorite TV show at the gym so you’ll start looking forward to workouts. Or only letting yourself drink a mocha latte during study sessions so there is a hook to get you to the library. My own research shows that temptation bundling can come in handy when you might otherwise abandon your New Year’s resolution.
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If you deviate at all from your New Year’s resolution, your instinct may be to declare yourself a failure and throw in the towel. Researchers call this the “What the hell effect.” Here’s what it looks like: You planned to get to bed early every night but couldn’t resist staying up late one Friday to watch an extra episode of “Succession.” After that, your early-to-bed plans went out the window because “What the hell,” you’d already failed.
Happily, there is a way to dodge this fate. By setting tough goals (like a 10 p.m. bedtime every night) but giving yourself one or two get-out-of-jail-free cards each week, you can get better results than by setting either tough or easy goals without wiggle room, research has revealed. Your stretch goal keeps you motivated, and the ability to declare an “emergency” (rather than saying “what the hell”) keeps you pushing forward after a misstep.
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Why not get a little help from your friends?
Spending time around high achievers can boost your own performance. If your New Year’s resolution is to run a marathon or write a book, you’d be wise to start hanging around friends who’ve made it to the finish line (literally or figuratively) and can show you how it’s done. You’ll pick up a bit just by spending time together because you’ll be inclined to conform to their patterns of behavior. But my research and studies done by others show that if you explicitly ask successful friends how they achieved a shared goal and try out those tactics yourself, you’ll gain even more ground.
Strangely enough, there is evidence that coaching friends with shared goals can improve your success rate, too. When you’re on the hook to give someone else tips on how to achieve, it boosts your self-confidence (why would they listen to you if you didn’t have something to offer?). It also forces you to be introspective about what works in ways you might not otherwise. And of course, you’ll feel hypocritical if you don’t follow your own words of wisdom.
Happily, pursuing your New Year’s resolutions with friends is also more fun, and that’s another key to success.
Let’s say New Year’s Day has passed by the time you’re reading this article, and you feel you’ve already failed. The science says you have not. You can start over on any fresh start you choose – next Monday, next month or on your birthday. Or pick any day to start over, and follow these five steps to establishing another good habit.