4 Science-Backed Strategies to Help You Nail Your New Year’s Resolutions

Imagine all the ways you’ll fail, use “fresh starts,” pace yourself, and more.

New Year’s resolutions are great. I’m a big fan of taking stock of where I am and where I want to be, and then plotting out how to bridge the gap. Unfortunately, research shows that only 19 percent of New Year’s resolutions stick for over two years. This astonishingly low success rate is founded in a simple fact: change is hard. Both body and mind crave homeostasis. For better or worse we are very much creatures of habit.

But hard is not impossible. And, if we approach the changes in our life strategically and scientifically, we increase the chances that they’ll stick. Here, I summarize four of my favorite behavioral science strategies that have been proven to help people push their limits and make productive changes.

Pre-Mortem: This idea comes from Dan Kahneman’s wonderful book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. When we set out to make a change, most of us are optimistic and over-confident. If we weren’t, we’d never set out to make a change in the first place because, as stated in the opening, the vast majority of changes fail. Although this optimism gives us the courage to step outside of our comfort zone, it blinds us to all the stuff that can go wrong.

When things go wrong, normally we evaluate and learn from them after the fact, in what is commonly referred to as a post-mortem. But why wait until we’ve failed? Instead, Kahneman recommends taking 5 to 10 minutes to imagine you set out to do XYZ and the result was a total disaster; and then to ask yourself what went wrong? Going through this simple exercise helps you to uncover all sorts of potential pitfalls that you might have otherwise overlooked. Once you’ve uncovered these pitfalls, you can adapt your plan accordingly. In other words, imagining all the things that could go wrong helps ensure you give yourself the best chance of things going right.

I do this frequently and it frequently saves my ass. (More details on the pre-mortem here.)

Social Support: This is simple and unsexy, which is precisely why it’s so often overlooked. Far more effective than the latest and greatest quantified-self technology tracker is a friend or group to support you in your goals. This is an area where high-performance athletics is leading the way. Increasingly, elite athletes are training in group settings and seeing great results. Surround yourself with like-minded and committed individuals, and you’ll be far more likely to achieve your goals. This is a big part of the reason I decided to team-up with a brilliant coauthor on a forthcoming book — easily one of the best decisions I’ve made in the past few years. Plato once said, “What is honored in a culture gets cultivated there.” Plato is right.

For more on social support (and some hard science as to why it can be more effective than high-tech gadgets) see this article.

Treat Willpower Like a Muscle: The scientific community has been in a spat about this one. Longstanding theory held that willpower is like a muscle, and that it can become depleted with use. Some newer research shows this might not always be true. All of these studies occur in a lab. In my real-world experience (both in myself and those I work with) willpower does indeed seem to deplete in most scenarios. The implications of this are simple: You can’t expect to go hard all the time. Whatever it is that you are doing, you need to give yourself time to relax and recover. When you lay down plans for how you’ll approach challenges, be sure to keep this in mind.

Consistency is key. It’s better to be 80 percent all the time than 100 percent two days a week. Save your “go to the well” efforts — of which you have a limited number — for when you really need them. For example, check out this training data from Brian Barraza, one of the world-class runners Steve Magness (my good friend and coauthor mentioned above) coaches. In 2016, Barraza had a breakout season. Notice how rarely he went HARD. It’s not just that an elite athlete’s body can’t handle constant intensity, it’s that their mind can’t handle it either. In short, pace yourself.

Fresh Start Effect: Research out of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard shows that people are more likely to commit to big goals on temporal landmarks. Of course the most common of these landmarks is the new year itself, but researchers found the same trend held true for the birthdays, the first day of a month, and even the first day of a week.

I’ve observed this to be a real phenomenon, and something that is both good and bad. Good because you can take advantage of these temporal landmarks to commence work on big challenges. Bad because these landmarks can also become a crutch. If every weekend you say “I’ll start/stop doing XYZ on Monday,” but then never actually start or stick with the behavior, the fresh-start is a wasted one.

In practice, take advantage of the uptick in motivation associated with the start of new months and new weeks, but know the uptick fades quickly.

Putting it All Together

For whatever your goals may be, give yourself a better chance to succeed:

  • Imagine it’s 6 months from now and you failed. What caused the failure? What can you do to preempt and prepare for these potential obstacles?
  • Find others who are committed to similar goals and work with them.
  • Build in rest and recovery periods. Being 80 percent 100 percent of the time is better than being 100 percent 50 percent of the time.
  • Know that you have a subconscious uptick in motivation on temporal landmarks. Use these landmarks as reflection points and harness the extra motivation, but also realize it’s temporary.

consider my reading book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.

Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He is a columnist at New York Magazine and Outside Magazine. Follow Brad on Twitter Brad Stulberg.

Bestselling author of Peak Performance and The Passion Paradox. Co-Creator of The Growth Equation. Coach to executives, entrepreneurs, and MDs.

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