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How to Keep Your New Year's Resolutions, According to Science

How to Keep Your New Year's Resolutions, According to Science main image

As 2017 draws to a close, it’s time to try and turn over a new leaf, and make a list of goals and targets for the coming year. Sure, you didn’t end up keeping to any of your New Year’s resolutions from last year, but this year is going to be different you say confidently to yourself. Yes, 2018 will be the year you finally stick to your guns and shed a few pounds, or break out of that increasingly toxic relationship.

Unfortunately, bad habits die hard, and it’s never as easy to keep a New Year’s resolution as it is to come up with them. 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail each year, according to US News. So, to give you every bit of help possible, we’ve turned to science for some top tips and tricks to help you stay motivated and reach your goals in 2018. Here’s what the boffins reckon you can do to keep your New Year’s resolutions.

Make fewer resolutions and choose them carefully 

It may sound obvious that setting yourself fewer goals will stack the odds in your favor, but what you may not know is that it can also strengthen your resolve. In a psychological experiment run by researchers at Florida State University, a group of volunteers were instructed to eat a tray of chocolate chip cookies while another group was told to resist the cookies and have radishes instead. All volunteers were then handed out an unsolvable geometry puzzle. Those who ate the radishes gave up more quickly than those who ate the cookies, suggesting that willpower is not an unlimited resource. 

Roy Baumeister, who conducted the study, told the Guardian: “Little acts of self-control, such as resisting a desire, making yourself do something you don’t want to, not going to the bathroom when you need to… all of these are a drain on your willpower.” So, next time you find yourself reaching out for a chocolate bar? Just go ahead.

Of course, as anyone who’s ever tried to quit smoking will tell you, your motivations for quitting a bad habit matter a lot. A weight loss study from 1996 found that of 128 obese people enrolled on a six-month weight loss programme, those driven by external pressures, such as from friends and family, tended to shed fewer pounds and were less able to maintain a stable weight over the long term. Instead, it was those people who were driven by personal motivations, such as their health, who performed the best.

Trap yourself into keeping your resolution 

For some of us, relying on willpower alone isn’t an option. If that sounds like you, try “pre-committing”, a strategy which consists of removing all temptations in advance so you have no choice but to follow-through. A study by Oxford University offered volunteers a choice between a small reward straight away and a bigger reward if they waited. Those who pre-committed to taking the larger reward were less likely to buckle than their peers who hadn’t. 

If pre-committing doesn’t work either, put your money where your mouth is

A 2010 experiment found that smokers were more likely to quit if granted the opportunity to transfer money into an account for a period of six months that they would lose if they failed to pass a urine test for nicotine. If the idea of bribing yourself into being less weak-willed appeals to you, the website StickK was set up by behavioral economists and lets you forfeit money if you fail to keep your resolutions.  

What if none of these strategies work for you? Try again on your birthday

In a 2010 paper, a team of management researchers discovered what they described as the “fresh state effect”. Analysing Google searches for the terms “diet”, “gym visits” and “commitments to pursue goals”, they found those keywords to shoot up after temporal landmarks such as the beginning of a new week, month, birthday or holiday. Why is that? Temporal landmarks help us leave past failures behind and adopt a big-picture mindset, conducive to aspirational changes. So, don’t give up if your New Year’s resolutions are among the 80 percent which fail. Just wait for the next suitable milestone and start trying again. 

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Written by Mathilde Frot
I'm originally French but I grew up in Casablanca, Kuala Lumpur and Geneva. When I'm not writing for QS, you'll usually find me sipping espresso(s) with a good paperback.

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