If you’re already struggling to keep your New Year’s resolutions, you’re not alone. A 2016 study found that 45 percent of Americans make resolutions, but less than 10 percent actually achieve them. It’s not hopeless, though. Psychologists have some evidence-based strategies for making changes successfully.
Set “want to” goals, not “have to” goals. Going on a diet because your doctor said to is different than going on a diet because it is part of a deeply desired change in your life. Your brain knows the difference, and can sabotage you. Research has shown goals imposed by others, or driven by a sense of obligation or shame, actually ramp up temptation circuitry in the brain, making it harder to resist. In contrast, Harvard psychologist Susan David, author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, says self-driven goals based on personal values dampen temptation and actually make choices that fit with your goals seem more appealing than others; it can even make an apple seem yummier than chocolate cake.
Make small, incremental changes. The most common resolutions tend to be things like lose weight, exercise more, stop drinking or smoking, and—taking the prize for vagueness—be a better person. Those are sweeping changes that can be hard to follow through on, even if you really want to. Many psychologists agree that it’s best to set specific goals and make small, incremental changes.
Visualize the bad with the good. David sounds a note of caution about traditional visualization techniques, noting that research shows they can easily backfire. For example, if your goal is to run a marathon and you visualize yourself finishing the marathon, it can trick your brain into thinking you’ve already completed the goal and shut down motivation. David says it’s important to consider the obstacles or difficulties you’ll encounter as you work toward your goal, and to visualize how you’ll respond and overcome them.
Tell yourself the right stories. Whether or not we realize it, we are constantly interpreting what’s going on around us and telling ourselves stories that explain it. Sometimes, those stories can be self-defeating: “Another bad test score. I’m just not good at math.” “I’m supposed to be on a diet, but I ate the cake, anyway. I’ll never lose the weight.” Timothy Wilson, author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, says studies show editing those stories can make us more successful. Try asking yourself “is there any other explanation?” Opting for a more positive spin, and retelling stories of even small successes, can become self-fulfilling prophesies.