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There’s a Science to Keeping New Year’s Resolutions

Sarah Green Carmichael
·5 min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Here we go again. Another year begins — who knows what it might bring? If memes are anything to go by, a lot of us are afraid it could be even worse than 2020. Let’s hope not.

In this wobbly time, New Year’s resolutions are inherently appealing (to a certain personality at least). A way to seize opportunity! Wrest control of some small portion of life! Not feel quite so much like a random piece of flotsam buffeted by events!

But there can also be a certain futility to crafting a list of resolutions. Most resolution-makers fail, and relatively quickly. An oft-cited statistic is that 80% will fail by Valentine’s Day. But there is an upside: Research by psychologist John Norcross has found that resolution-makers are more than 10 times as successful in changing their behavior as people who want to change but don’t make formal resolutions.

Before joining Bloomberg, I was an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where I edited hundreds (and read thousands) of expert-written articles on behavior change. Since there are lots of parts of me that seem to need improvement, I often made myself a human guinea pig to see which advice worked for me. Here are the tips I found worked the best.

1. Only make one resolution. Once you start resolving, it’s easy to get carried away — why only lose weight, when you could also stop vaping, read more books, meet a new love interest, save money? The problem is that a long list of resolutions will diffuse your efforts to change. Your energies scattered, you may end up achieving nothing. Better to focus on one thing, and actually do it.

The solution is a “divergent thinking” phase, where you can feel free to brainstorm a long list of possible resolutions. Then follow up this exercise with “convergent thinking,” a phase where you cull all the extraneous ideas to focus on the one thing you really want to achieve. Since leadership coach Peter Bregman wrote about this idea in 2009, I’ve become a single-resolution devotee, with much better results.

2. Small goals are better than big ones. Don't make your resolution "write a book" or "lose 50 pounds.” Make it "write a book proposal" or "lose 5 pounds." Falling short of an audacious goal can be demotivating, but meeting a more modest target often encourages us to keep going. Call it crazy (or call it psychology) but I’d much rather have a goal of bicycling 18 miles a week and hit 20 miles, than hit 20 miles when I’ve set my sights on 25.

3. Frame your resolution as something positive, not something negative. It’s really hard to resist temptation — when all you’re thinking about is not checking your phone every five seconds, you become really focused on your phone. That makes it even harder to resist. It’s easier to do something than to avoid something.

So instead of just avoiding something “bad,” think of yourself as replacing that behavior with something else. “Stop looking at your phone at night” might become “Read a book before bed.” “Stop eating so much ice cream" might become "Eat a piece of fruit after dinner." Social psychologists have linked this sort of if-then thinking to successful change, because it becomes a cue for the healthier behavior.

4. Give yourself a time limit. Thinking about long-term lifestyle change is overwhelming. Are you really going to give up sugar, stop picking fights with your spouse, or start doing yoga … forever? A better way to begin is with a short- or medium-term goal. There’s a reason substance-abuse programs advocate taking things “one day at a time.” Try your new behavior for a week; a month; or 40 days. Then reassess. Tweak what’s not working. Most experts on habit-formation agree that it takes about 6-8 weeks to form a new habit, by which point the new behavior will start to feel more natural.

And in fact, some resolutions might be better off as short-term goals. One year, I decided to give up buying anything but absolute essentials for three months. Obviously, forever forgoing shopping would have been a bit extreme. But a three-month hiatus from spending gave me a chance to reset my impulse-buying to a more sensible level.

5. Aim for progress, not perfection. Whatever change you decide to pursue, make this your mantra. When you slip — and you will — just forgive yourself and move on. The important thing is to keep moving forward. A sense of progress is inherently motivating. The wins can be small; they’re still wins.

And if you find yourself starting lots of resolutions and never seeing them through, keep your focus on how far you have left to go, rather than on the progress you’ve already made. This is something I learned from social psychologist Heidi Grant, and now I notice it everywhere. Once you start patting yourself on the back for almost completing your goal, it becomes much easier to think other priorities need your attention. Instead, stay the course and give yourself the satisfaction of reaching the finish line.

We have no idea what 2021 will bring, or how it will affect our goals. My resolution for 2020 — spend more time with friends — certainly didn’t pan out. But here’s hoping we’re all in a better place by 2022.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.

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