Make the most of the New Year you

Five psychology hacks to keep you committed and motivated to your New Year's resolutions

Six weeks – that’s how long it takes for 80% of Americans to fail their New Year’s resolutions. If you want to be the exception rather than the rule, here are five hacks to give your resolutions the best chance of success.

1. Say that you don’t rather than you can’t

Could increasing the chances of sticking to your resolutions be as simple as changing one word? According to science, it can.

Marketing professor Vanessa Patrick recruited 120 university students and taught them two different strategies for managing unhealthy food temptations. One group was taught to say, “I can’t eat X” when presented with an unhealthy snack, while the other group was taught to say, “I don’t eat X”.

Participants were then asked to complete a different (and irrelevant) task, and the crux of the experiment came when they got up to leave the room and were offered a chocolate bar and a healthy granola bar. The experimenters quietly noted who picked which bar.

It turns out there was a big difference between the strategy people were taught and the bar they picked. Thirty-nine per cent of those who were taught to say “I can’t eat X” chose the healthy granola bar. In contrast, 64% of those in the “I don’t eat X” group picked the granola bar. In other words, changing one simple word increased the likelihood of selecting the healthy snack by over 50%. So, if your New Year’s resolutions involve stopping a behaviour, say that you don’t do this behaviour, rather than you can’t.

2. Express gratitude to increase your self-control

Sticking to resolutions involves self-control – after all, we are trying to change habits that we have possibly had for many, many years. David DeSteno, a psychology professor from Northeastern University, set out to explore whether an act as simple as being grateful could improve one’s self-control muscle.

DeSteno asked people to spend a few minutes thinking about an event that made them feel either grateful, happy or neutral. They were then offered the choice of receiving $18 immediately or $100 in a year. People who thought about an event they felt grateful for were twice as likely to wait one year for the extra money compared to the groups that thought about happy or neutral events. In other words, by feeling grateful, people were able to exert greater self-control.

By breaking your big goal into a series of little goals, you will feel a bigger sense of progress as a result of hitting your smaller goals more frequently

To help your New Year’s resolutions stick, spend a few minutes every day thinking about something you are grateful for. Doing so will build up your willpower and give your resolutions the best chance of success.

3. Write down your resolution on a sheet of paper

Social scientists Delia Cioffi and Randy Garner explored the difference in people’s commitment to goals when they were made actively versus passively. The researchers set up an experiment in which students were asked to volunteer for an AIDS education project. Of those students who simply told the researchers verbally that they would volunteer (the passive group), only 17% actually turned up on the volunteering day. In contrast, those who wrote down their commitment to volunteer (the active group), had a 49% attendance rate.

The reason why writing down commitments more than doubles the chance of sticking to them is that we infer more about ourselves through the way we act. Taking the action of writing down a goal says much more about yourself compared to just thinking about a goal. And therefore we are more likely to follow through.

4. Make just one resolution to start with

We often talk about New Year’s resolutions in the plural. It is assumed we will set more than just one. However, this is where we could be getting it all wrong. New Year’s resolutions are generally about habit changing. And habits are hard to change. They take great self-control and self-discipline. Psychology professor Roy F Baumeister recommends starting with just one resolution, and with the easiest one first. This allows you to build momentum and exercise your willpower muscle, which will help it get stronger, increasing your chance of success in changing more challenging habits.

5. Set mini goals to create a sense of progress

Many people’s resolutions consist of big goals. Quit smoking. Lose 15 pounds. Go to the gym every day. A trick to help you achieve your resolutions is to break your big goal into subgoals. For example, if your goal is to lose 15 pounds, break it down into losing five pounds in January, five in February and five in March.

Harvard psychology professor Teresa Amabile found that creating small wins is the key to driving engagement in what we do. And by breaking your big goal into a series of little goals, you will feel a bigger sense of progress as a result of hitting your smaller goals more frequently.

By using one or more of these psychology hacks, you’ll give yourself the best chance of being in the select group of 20% of people whose New Year’s resolutions are still going strong many months into the new year.


Dr Amantha Imber is the founder of Inventium, Australia’s leading innovation consultancy, and the host of ‘How I Work’, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful innovators.