The scientific approach to keeping your New Year's Resolutions

What if our failure isn’t down to laziness or lack of effort, but because we are going about the process all wrong?

January 01, 2019
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What’s your 2019 New Year’s resolution? Get in shape? Quit smoking? Save money? And how long do you think it’ll last?

Most of us wouldn’t like to think we’re natural quitters, and yet around 80 per cent of New Year’s resolutions fail by February. With those dismal numbers, why would anyone bother trying?

But what if our failure isn’t down to laziness or lack of effort, but because we are going about the process all wrong? What if we could turn ourselves into production experts? Thankfully, with the help of science, we actually can.

This one’s personal

Entrepreneurs and scientists agree: the first step to achieving your goal is understanding why you’re actually doing it. “Lose weight” and “reduce debt” are some of the most common resolutions, but the problem with goals like these is they’re too broad—they can apply to anyone.

Often the resolutions we fail to keep “are large and impressive, but unsustainable,” says Dr. Stephanie Stanton-Fay, a behavioural scientist at University College London.

“The resolution needs to be very specific as well as realistic to ensure the greatest chance of success—if it’s too vague it’s easier to wriggle out of.”

Multiple studies reveal individualizing your goals is the key to success. The American Psychological Association found that specific goals are 90 percent more likely to be achieved than something generic. And that inspiration comes from within. A 1996 weight loss study proved that outside pressures like family and friends are not enough to stay on track. Instead those driven by their own personal motivations succeeded in transforming their lifestyle.

You have to want it. And you have to get why you want it. Like motivational speaker Tony Robbins said, “If you want to be a part of the few that do versus the many that talk, you need to be crystal clear—what specific result will you accomplish? What’s your why?’’

Making a plan

Once you get why you’re doing something, you need to formulate a plan. A British study discovered that 91 percent of individuals were more likely to follow through with their exercise regimen when they made an action plan for it.

“Often the devil is in the detail, and a lack of plan as to how the new behaviours will work in our lives results in them not being implemented,” Stanton-Fay says.

But you can’t just plan, you’ve got to dream it, too. Studies show that the same neural synapses ignite when we envision ourselves doing said activity as when we actually perform said activity.

Successful athletes cite visualization as the key to their victories. They imagine themselves winning the sport—right down to the smell of dirt on their cleats and the taste of sweat dripping down their heads.

Mark the mini-milestones

Our minds might be good at conjuring up lofty, long-term goals, but, in reality, our brains actually favour short-term achievements.

Stanton-Fay says it’s best to choose a realistic, smaller resolution which “result[s] in success that can be built on.”

Each success—no matter how small—triggers our brain’s reward pathway and releases the feel-good chemical, dopamine. And each small win sets off a chain reaction encouraging you to continue feeling that happiness.

How to make the habit, not break it

Typically, it takes 66 days to form a habit, and possibly more than 120. American Psychological Association says frequently monitoring progress increases the chances of succeeding our goals. The bullet-journaling trend can certainly help, but for those of us who live on our smartphones, a handful of apps exist specifically for the purpose of forming habits.

HabitBull and Productive Habit Tracker allows you to trackhabits simply and seamlessly. Research details that social support is a key part of weight loss efforts and mentorship and accountability can be crucial for achieving our ambitions.

A California university study found that those who checked in with friends weekly either fully or halfway met their objectives. And Habitshare gives you the opportunity to share progress updates, providing a support network in reaching your goals.

Bottom line, though, habits truly stick when they become automatically ingrained into your routine. Stanton-Fay suggests not only setting up a time and place where you will perform your goal but also connecting it to another activity.

“[C]hoose a suitable time and a suitable existing routine that it can be linked to, such as before/after a morning shower or during an evening TV programme.” Stanton-Fay says. “That way, the context provides a cue to trigger the behaviour.”

New Year’s Resolutions may appear as a joke, but by taking a scientific approach, we can actually take them seriously beyond February.