How to actually keep those New Year’s resolutions, according to science

New Year's Resolutions
Record your goal progress in a calendar so that you stay motivated all year long. PHOTO: Estee Janssens via Unsplash

The new year has only just begun but many of us have already given up on our New Year’s resolutions. Whether you’re looking to quit smoking, lose weight, or learn a new skill, there are many factors that could prevent us from actually keeping our resolutions. 

According to Joseph Kable, professor of psychology and director of MindCORE at the University of Pennsylvania, uncertainty plays a big role in giving up.

“One thing that we’ve studied a lot in my research is the uncertainty people have when they’re going about achieving their goals,” he says. “If you’re going to quit smoking, you don’t know exactly when it’s going to be that the cravings will go away or when you’re going to feel better. The brain interprets this as a sign that it’s going to take longer than you originally thought. It can undermine the motivation to do the things you need to do to reach that goal.”  

Another factor in giving up on our New Year’s resolutions is setting unrealistic expectations, like aiming to drop 20 pounds in a month or learning how to shred like Jimi Hendrix in just a few weeks. 

“If you have unrealistic expectations about when you’re going to get there, it’s doubly disappointing when you’ve been working towards it and you don’t get there,” Kable says.

So what can we do to counteract these obstacles? Be more realistic from the beginning. 

“Knowing the role expectations play, what that tells you, is to have more realistic expectations about how long things take. Rather than focus on big goals that may take a long time, focus on smaller goals where you see clear progress towards them,” Kable says.

For example, if you’re trying to quit smoking, aim to get through the day without having a cigarette. If you’re learning how to play the guitar, set a goal to practice 30 minutes a day.

Having a visual record of your progress is helpful as well.

“Mark on the calendar every time you reach your goal. Once you see that string of victories, you won’t want to go a day without doing it.”

And above all, being flexible is key to seeing your New Year’s resolutions through.

“It’s better for people to think about resolutions as an ongoing struggle,” Kable says. “Just because you fall off the wagon in February, there’s nothing to keep you from getting back on in the next day or the next week.”

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