Here’s a better way to make New Year’s resolutions


Is it true that New Year’s resolutions never work?

The science: The conventional wisdom is that New Year’s resolutions typically fail. But a closer look at the data shows that many people do benefit from making resolutions, and there are ways to improve your odds of success, experts say.

New Year’s resolutions have a bad reputation, at least in part, because people tend to grade themselves pass or fail when, in reality, they’ve made key improvements in various areas of their lives by mostly sticking to a resolution, experts say.

Estimates vary, but a 2019 YouGov survey of nearly 1,200 U.S. adults showed that about 4 in 10 made New Year’s resolutions. Of those surveyed who made resolutions, about 16 percent kept all their resolutions and about 44 percent kept at least some but not all of them by the end of the year – meaning nearly 2 out of 3 people achieved some level of success.

One reason New Year’s resolutions work for some people is that resolutions are a prime example of a psychological phenomenon known as the fresh start effect – a date on the calendar that gives people a sense of a new beginning and motivates them to make a positive change, said Katy Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book, “How to Change.”

Other holidays, birthdays and even Mondays can be fresh starts. “It feels like a chapter break, and the sense of a clean slate gives us an extra motivation to pursue change,” Milkman said.

“New Year’s resolutions are not especially different from other goal-setting opportunities,” said Milkman, a behavioral scientist. “Good goals stretch you; they push you a little beyond where you would naturally go. And a stretch, by definition, is something that you can’t always hit.”

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Try these tips to increase your chances of success:

-Set your New Year’s resolutions at the right time. “When we plan for the future, there is often what we refer to as the ’empathy gap.’ We don’t quite envision what it would feel like to be hungry when we’re full or sweaty when we’re not sweating,” said Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and author of the book “Get it Done.” “If your New Year’s resolution is going to involve a lot of sweating, make the plan while you are exercising.”

-Make an explicit plan for achieving your goal. This includes thinking through ways to eliminate potential obstacles. If your resolution is to exercise more, make a plan now for which days you will exercise, where you will do it and how you will get there, as well as how to handle child care and meals.

-Choose a goal you’ll enjoy. You’re more likely to succeed if you pick something you like to do or if you can find a way to make it more fun. Research shows that people have more success achieving goals if they use a method known as “temptation bundling.” If your goal is to get more exercise, link it with a pleasurable activity such as a favorite podcast or TV show. If you’re trying to eat more healthfully, take a cooking class or make a plan to prepare a healthful recipe with a friend.

-Subtract things from your life, such as an activity you’re no longer committed to, so you have room for new goals.

-Forgive failures. Don’t define success as pass or fail. Celebrate small successes even if you don’t achieve 100-percent success. “If you’re setting tough goals, there will always be failure,” Milkman said.

The bottom line: New Year’s resolutions are not doomed to fail, and many people achieve at least some of their goals. The key, experts say, is making a plan that maximizes your odds of success.


PHOTO: X @LindseyBever

Lindsey Bever is a Health and Wellness reporter at The Washington Post



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