How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

Another year, another chance to fantasize about how much you’ll improve your life this year and then forget all your New Year’s resolutions by the time you get a week into January.

For many of us, there’s a wide gap between New Year’s resolutions made and New Year’s resolutions kept. Fortunately, psychology research has a few tips for how to improve your New Year’s resolution success rate.

The first thing to know is that whether you keep a New Year’s resolution comes down partly to how you balance long-term and short-term reward. We tend to make New Year’s resolutions for things that have delayed payoffs. For example, if you resolve to live a healthy lifestyle or learn a foreign language, you only reap the benefits further down the road.

The problem is that we’re often more motivated by short-term rewards. A study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that whether people kept New Year’s resolutions to study more or exercise more depended on whether the people experienced immediate rewards from these activities, like finding exercising or studying inherently enjoyable.

What this means is that if you want to stick to your New Year’s resolutions, you’ll be increasing your odds if you find a way to add short-term rewards that motivate you to do so. Sure, working out more has all sorts of nice benefits in the long-run, but when it comes down to actually exercising more day-to-day, you’ll have an easier time if you find a form of exercise that’s intrinsically enjoyable.

Another factor that’s been shown to improve your chances of making New Year’s resolutions reality is making sure your resolutions align with your personal values and goals.

Psychologists refer to this as self-concordance. The basic idea here makes intuitive sense: if you’re making New Year’s resolutions that involve goals that really matter to you, you’re more likely to keep them than if you’re making New Year’s resolutions that involve goals that matter to other people or goals that you feel social pressure to meet. A 2002 study from researchers at McGill University found that self-concordance predicts progress toward New Year’s resolutions.

The same study found that if (and only if) your resolutions match your values, having a concrete plan can raise your odds of New Year’s resolution success. It’s one thing to say “I’m going to do such-and-such more this year,” but if you want to go a step further you can identify specific situations where you’ll have opportunities to meet your goal: “if I encounter such-and-such situation this year, I will do such-and-such.”

One caveat with this strategy is that it only seems to work if you’re pursuing goals because they matter to you, not because they matter to other people. In fact, for people high in what psychologists call socially prescribed perfectionism – that is, people who are perfectionistic about meeting demands placed on them by others – this strategy may backfire and actually decrease their chances of sticking to their New Year’s resolutions.

Taken together, these studies suggest that the art of keeping your New Year’s resolutions may be largely about finding the right New Year’s resolutions in the first place. If you pick a New Year’s resolution that matters to you personally and find a way to make it personally rewarding in both the short-term and the long-term, you’re dramatically increasing your chances of joining the lucky few: those who actually keep their New Year’s resolutions.

Image: Flickr/Harry Pammer