The Science of Achieving New Year's Resolutions

Dark-skinned man gazing forward with determination as he works out on rings.

6 Tips to Help You Achieve Your Goals

By Misty Bott

I am a list maker. I love making a plan and checking things off and organizing my entire life on a Google sheet. So, setting New Year’s Resolutions? Hell yes. But actually achieving those resolutions does not always go as smoothly as I would like, no matter how many checklists I make.

If, like so many of us, you find yourself struggling to keep your New Year’s resolutions alive after February, this article can help. It includes 6 science-backed tips that will boost your odds of achieving your goals.

  1. Focus on the Details

Science shows that setting specific, measurable goals gets results. According to authors Bettina Höchli, Adrian Brügger, and Claude Messner of the University of Bern in Switzerland, “Goal-setting theory shows across hundreds of studies that challenging, specific, and concrete goals are powerful motivators and boost success in goal pursuit…”

For example, deciding to do 10 pull-ups a day is specific, while “get in better shape” is vague, and “look like Chris Hemsworth” is–at least for most of us–unrealistic. Developing goals you can measure helps keep you on track and accountable.

  1. Stack Your Goals

While small, specific goals work, a growing body of evidence shows that setting big-picture goals–like living a healthier lifestyle–can also lead to success. It sounds contradictory, but according to Höchli, Brügger, and Messner, these types of goals “…represent and determine what people ultimately value and aspire to…”

Goals that are so tightly tied to your values are highly motivating, which means they may actually help improve your odds for success. Try stacking some smaller goals into your big-picture resolution and prepare for impressive results. If your value-based goal is to be healthier, add in specific smaller goals, like committing to exercise for 20 minutes, 3 times a week or cutting one fast food lunch from your routine per week.

  1. Build Your (Willpower) Muscle

It pains me to admit it, but all the Google sheets in the world will not help you achieve your goals if you lack willpower. If you feel like you have none, don’t give up. There’s a theory called the strength model of self-control backed by promising research that shows we’re capable of strengthening our willpower.

According to a paper published by Roy Baumeister, PhD, Michel Audiffren, PhD, and Nathalie André, PhD, “…regular exertions of self-control can improve willpower strength and stamina, just as exercise training can strengthen muscles.” So how do we strengthen our willpower? We’re so glad you asked…

  1. Meditate

In her book The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist, best-selling author, and Stanford lecturer, lays out a growing body of research that shows regular meditation can help us achieve goals like staying sober and losing weight. And before you panic about having to pour yourself into some spandex pants and hit a yoga class, know it’s okay to keep it simple.

McGonigal recommends starting with a 5-minute meditation where you sit still with your hands in your lap, close your eyes, and focus on your breath. Repeat in your mind “inhale” and “exhale” to match your breathing, and after a few minutes let your mind go still and just focus on breathing. If you find your mind wandering, don’t stress about it. That is totally normal, and practicing bringing your thoughts back to your breath can help boost your willpower.

Dark-skinned man using battle ropes in a gym.

  1. Exercise

Whether or not your New Year’s resolutions revolve around fitness, exercise can help. A study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that individuals who started a regular workout program gained more self-control throughout the trial than those who didn’t. They also reported feeling less stressed, were able to cut back on caffeine and alcohol, began eating healthier, improved their study habits, and more.

  1. Don’t Overdo It

Just like you wouldn’t hit the gym on day one and try to deadlift 400 pounds, you shouldn’t go too hard, too fast when working to strengthen your willpower. Baumeister’s research has shown that over time, exerting willpower can deplete self-control. And the willpower goals don’t have to be related. Skipping that slice of birthday cake at work and refraining from swearing at the guy who cut you off in traffic can wear down your willpower reserves and make you more likely to give in to other temptations – wasting time online, flirting with someone at the gym despite being in a committed relationship – later.

The takeaway? Work on strengthening your willpower by making small changes, rather than trying to change everything in your life all at once.

With these 6 tips, you’ve got science on your side as you work to make those New Year’s resolutions a reality.