We don’t really know much about resolutions, but human beings sure love to set them year after year—and we have been, for about 4000 years now.
In one of the very few studies conducted on resolution-making-and-keeping, less than half of resolution-makers kept their promises to themselves beyond six months and only about 19% kept them all the way through.
Encouragingly, though, research shows you are more likely to make a change in your life if you make a resolution on New Year’s day (or any other significant day, like the beginning of a semester) than otherwise. Is it the fresh start effect? Or some kind of cosmic push? Whatever the explanation, the real effort of sticking to your resolutions is in keeping the fire of that starry-eyed (possibly drunken) optimism burning from Day 1 to 365—and beyond.
While it is customary to attribute this success to discipline, grit and willpower, we would like to to offer up a few tricksthat have nothing to do with these qualities, all of which might be — quite understandably — eroded by the trauma of 2020.
Get really specific about your what and hows
Get into the details. So you want to be “fitter” this New Year. What’s your target physique, weight and measurements? Do you want to run a marathon? Or prepare for a mountaineering expedition? Your goals have to go into the specifics of the how so well that there is no room for doubt.
A resolution like “I will do 50 squats and 50 push-ups every single day except for Sundays at 6 a.m. on my patio after a cup of coffee and before breakfast,” is a more actionable and easily accomplished one than the vaguely worded: “I want to have killer thighs by 2022.”
Before you go into the new year, ensure you have the materials you need. Have a reading list ready. Go shopping for your new healthy-eating diet plan. Set yourself up for a great beginning.
Forget willpower—design your environment to help you succeed
Your environment is filled with cues and temptations that enable a particular behavior and these can have powerful, lasting effects. In his book “Atomic Habits,” James Clear recounts the experience of Patty Ol
well, a therapist who would often smoke while riding horses with a friend. “Eventually, she quit smoking and avoided it for years. She had also stopped riding,” he writes. When she hopped on a horse decades later, she found herself craving a cigarette “for the first time in forever.” The cues were still internalized; she just had not been exposed to them in a long time.
There’s a long-standing belief that self control, effortful restraint and willpower are the sole indicators of success for new habits or personal change — but recent research contradicts this. The people who appear to have great self-control also typically need to use it the least — either due to privilege, great habits and routines, or just environmental factors.
Instead of fighting your temptations and hard-wired bad habits, set your environment up so that you are not exposed to them. If you want to control your habit of excessive spending, remove your credit card details from your browser’s autofill — or even better, cancel them altogether. If you want to quit your habit of snacking on junk food, don’t buy any. If you want to journal every day, keep your notebook right under your pillow with a working pen so that you don’t have to think about looking for writing materials.
Become your resolution
Almost every resolution there is to make can be boiled down to one thing: a change in identity. A smoker who wants to quit smoking wants to be a non-smoker. An overweight man who wants to lose weight wants to be a fit person. One of the ultimate forms of motivation is the preservation of identity.
“True behavior change is identity change,” writes Clear. “You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity.”
If you begin to take pride in being an avid reader, the chances are higher that you’ll pick up your book or Kindle instead of your phone during your commute. If you identify as a sober person, it’ll be easier to say no to drinks offered to you at the next party.
Set laughably small, ridiculously achievable targets. Start with one push up, or one page, or one carb-free meal. Build a repeatable routine around it: do this at the same time, same place every day until the act becomes part of your muscle memory. It doesn’t matter if your exercise/practice/reading session is perfect or Instagram-worthy. It only matters that it happens regularly and without fail — this ensures you develop the habit of showing up, which is crucial and primary to ingraining a new behavior or habit. Raise the criteria when you’re ready to take it up a notch.
When trying to etch a new habit for the long haul, you are better off setting lower criteria that goes up over time, rather than burning out (or drowning in self-loathing) because you could not keep up. You may not become John Mayer or Serena Williams, but you will be better than you were last year.
Get ready for speed bumps
After the wringer that was 2020, making New Year’s resolutions for 2021 can feel a little bit like an extreme sport. What if there’s another pandemic? A war? Or worse? How can one be expected to start a keto diet while there’s a famine going on? If there is anything this year has taught us, it’s the importance of slowing down and being kinder with ourselves. Set your resolutions anyway. They help you stay grounded and give you something to look forward to. Plus, science says it’s good for your well-being.Begin prepared with the knowledge that you are going to slip up. You will have missed-workout days that then turn into missed-workout weeks. It’s alright. Dust yourself off and begin again. You are in it for the long haul. What are mere days before a lifetime of turning over a new leaf?