How to actually make and keep New Year's resolutions, according to a behavioral scientist

How to actually make and keep New Year's resolutions, according to a behavioral scientist

new year's eve 2018

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Here comes 2018...

  • Most people don't keep their New Year's resolutions, and some even prefer to revel in their failures.
  • Psychologists say in order to successfully change, you have to really want things to be different, and you also have to stick to your plan.
  • If you're trying to break an old habit, replace it with a new one. Otherwise, it can be too hard to say no to temptation.

Does anyone take New Year's resolutions seriously anymore?

Former President Obama doesn't. He acknowledged as much in a recent interview with Prince Harry on the BBC:

"I'm not sure I believe in New Year's resolutions - typically people break them," the former president said.


Prince Harry's fiancee Meghan Markle says she isn't a fan of keeping to strict New Year's resolutions anymore, either. The princess-to-be wrote in 2016 that her only intention for that new year was to "leave room for magic."

But if you're looking to make a few more (ahem) solid changes to your daily routines this year, there are ways that psychologists say you actually can make New Year's resolutions a success.

Here are three of their top tips:

Tip #1: Only make New Year's resolutions if you really want to change
fitness weight lifting weightlifting workout gym exercise woman


Think about why you're resolving to try something new: Are you just a little curious how it might feel? Are you trying something out just because the rest of the gang is doing it? Or, are you really sick and tired of the way things are and you're finally ready to make a change? That could be a sign that this is the year to try out a New Year's resolution.

Yale psychology Professor John Bargh told Business Insider that people should only resolve to try something new this year if it's really important to them personally, and it's something they'd want to change even when no one else is watching.


"I wouldn't play around with these things," Bargh said.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School agree. They write that "long-lasting change is most likely when it's self-motivated and rooted in positive thinking."

It's best to pick a specific goal - not just "I want to get more exercise" but, specifically how much and when, like: "I'm going to bike for 30 minutes, 4 days a week," for example. Making specific, measurable actions a part of your daily routine, triggered by things you do every day (like coming home from work and popping on a pair of running shoes at the back door) make it easier to succeed.

Another part of the reason that New Year's resolutions so often fail, Bargh says, is that people enjoy sharing their failures with others. "Bragging" about how we just can't resist our favorite temptations can foster a sense of belonging and camaraderie among the not-so-resolved. But the old therapist's mantra rings true for resolutions, too: You don't change unless you really want to.

Tip #2: Keep your new promise to yourself (and to your body) for an entire month, without exception
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The body remembers a broken promise.

Many of the habitual actions we do every day require very little thinking: driving a car, washing our hands, typing on a keyboard, or picking which route to take to school or to work in the morning are all tasks that become largely second-nature over time, requiring less and less of our conscious mind. The brain and body learn from these everyday habits and start anticipating how to act.


That's why it's important to stay consistent with a new regime.

"You don't wanna make promises that you don't keep to your body and your mind," Bargh said.

Research suggests it can take as little as 18 days or as long as 254 to pick up a new routine, depending on what you're trying to do, but Bargh says a month is a good measuring stick for trying on a new resolution. If you try something out for the first 31 days of the year and you don't like the change, you can decide to forgo it in February, but give the idea a fighting chance, first, with a month of solid, uninterrupted effort.

Tip #3: Replace the bad with the good
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Heath Cajandig/Flickr

Replace old temptations with something new.

You know that little kid who needs to be distracted with a shiny object to stop crying? Well, your body and mind are a lot like that kid when they're trying to form new habits and move into new patterns. We typically need to replace an old, stale behavior with a new one.

Bargh successfully mastered this trick once himself when he decided he wanted to quit drinking. Instead of coming home and sipping on an alcoholic beverage, he scoured his home of all alcoholic indulgences and instead started sucking on sugary Tootsie Pops anytime he had a fresh urge for a tipple. It gave his mouth something positive, fun and new to do. He even made a little game out of the new habit: wadding up his lollipop wrappers and tossing them to the cat to bat around like some kind of feline Derek Jeter.


Whether you're interested in finally giving an old New Year's resolution a real go this year, or you're just ready for something new, Bargh says initiating change is always tough. So, his final piece of advice is a simple one: If you are going to resolve to do something new, "do it for yourself," he says.

Otherwise, it's probably not a change worth fighting for in the first place.