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5 strategies to achieve your New Year’s resolutions

Editor’s note: award-winning behavioral scientist Katy Milkman is the James G. Dinan Professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, author of “How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be,” co-founder of Behavior Change for Good Initiative and host of the Charles Schwab “Choiceology” podcast.

(CNN) — It’s that time of year again. Bottles of champagne have been popped, balls have descended, and now your friends, family, and colleagues are starting to ask, “what’s your New Year’s resolution?”

Some people love the tradition of setting a goal every January 1. Others argue that it is a waste of time since most resolutions fail by mid-March. But there’s actually a logic to jumping on the New Year’s resolution bandwagon, despite the grim numbers.

My collaborators and I have shown that at new beginnings—dates like New Year’s Day, your birthday, and even Mondays—you are more motivated to tackle your goals because you feel like you can turn the page on past failures. Maybe you meant to quit smoking, get fit, or start going to bed at a reasonable hour last year and didn’t. A fresh start like the New Year allows you to relegate those missteps to a bygone chapter and tell yourself, “That was the old me, but the new me will be different.”

It may sound crazy, but it’s very helpful to be able to put failures aside and try again. After all, you can’t achieve anything if you don’t try, and many goals worth achieving can be hard to achieve the first time.

If you want to increase your chances of sticking to your 2023 New Year’s resolution, behavioral scientists have discovered a number of techniques that can help. These tactics are most useful if you have chosen a small, concrete target. That means you’ll want to avoid vague goals like “I’ll exercise more” and instead set specific goals like “I’ll exercise four times a week.”

Here are my five favorite science-based tips for sticking to your resolutions, taken from my book, “How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.”

Print or save this PDF to help you set your goals

1. Make a plan based on detailed directions

Just as cues tell Broadway stars when to go onstage, research has shown that adding detailed cues to your plan helps you remember when to act. Be sure to detail when and where you will follow up.

If your New Year’s resolution is to meditate five days a week, a plan like “I will meditate during the week” would be too vague. But a prompt-based plan like “I’ll meditate at the office on weekdays during my lunch break” would fit the bill.

Charting out when and where you will execute your resolution jogs your memory when appropriate and generates guilt if you back down. (Putting your plan on the calendar and setting a digital reminder wouldn’t hurt either.) Detailed planning can also help you anticipate and avoid obstacles, so if you plan to meditate over lunch, you’ll be sure to turn down any lunch meeting that comes your way.

2. Consider a penalty clause

This may sound ominous, but making sure you face some penalty if you don’t make your New Year’s resolution can work wonders.

An easy way to do this is to tell a few people about your goal so that you feel embarrassed if they check back later and find that you haven’t met it. (Telling all your social media followers would up the ante even more.)

However, a more serious penalty than shame is putting cold cash on the table, and there is excellent evidence that self-imposed cash penalties motivate success. You can make a bet with a friend that you will stick to your New Year’s resolution or call up. Alternatively, technology can help. Websites like StickK.com and Beeminder.com invite you to bet money that you’ll have to give to a charity if you don’t achieve a set goal. You just have to name a referee and set the bets.

The logic of why this works is simple. The incentives modify our decisions and the sanctions are even more motivating than the rewards. We are used to being fined by outsiders for our missteps (governments, health plans, neighborhood associations) but this time you fine yourself for misconduct.

3. Make it fun

Most of us strive for efficiency when it comes to achieving our goals. If you want to get in shape, you think intense training will be just what you need to produce rapid progress. If you want to excel in a class, you assume that long, distraction-free study sessions are the key. But research has shown that focusing on efficiency can leave you dry because you’ll neglect an even more important part of the equation: whether you enjoy the act of pursuing a goal.

Embarking on a tough workout may sound like a great way to see rapid progress, but research has shown that incorporating a fun element will help you maintain it. (Credit: Samo Trebizan/Adobe Stock)

If it’s not fun to exercise or study, it’s unlikely you’ll keep doing it. But if you get pleasure from your workouts or study sessions, research has found you’ll stick around longer. And in the end, that is what matters most to achieve a resolution.

One way to make pursuing a goal that normally feels like a chore more fun is to combine it with a guilty pleasure. I call this “grouping of temptations.” Consider only allowing yourself to watch your favorite TV show at the gym so that you start looking forward to workouts. Or just letting you drink a mocha latte during study sessions so there’s a hook to get you to the library. My own research shows that temptation grouping can be helpful when you might otherwise ditch your New Year’s resolution.

4. Allow emergencies

If you stray a bit from your New Year’s resolution, your instinct may be to declare it a failure and throw in the towel. Researchers call this the “what the heck effect.” Here’s what it looks like: You planned to go to bed early every night, but couldn’t resist staying up late on a Friday to catch a bonus episode of “Succession.” After that, your plans to go to bed early went out the window because “what the heck”, you had already failed.

Fortunately, there is a way to avoid this fate. By setting hard goals (like going to bed by 10 p.m. every night) but giving yourself a get out of jail card or two each week, you may get better results than setting hard or easy goals with no leeway, research reveals. Your ambitious goal keeps you motivated, and the ability to declare an “emergency” (instead of saying “what the heck”) keeps you moving forward after one misstep.

5. Get a little help from your friends

Why not get a little help from your friends?

Spending time with high performers can improve your own performance. If your New Year’s resolution is to run a marathon or write a book, it would be wise to start hanging out with friends who have made it (literally or figuratively) and can show you how it’s done. You’ll learn quite a bit just by spending time together because you’ll be inclined to adjust to their patterns of behavior. But my research and studies by others show that if you explicitly ask successful friends how they achieved a shared goal and try those tactics yourself, you’ll gain even more ground.

Oddly enough, there is evidence that training friends with shared goals can also improve your success rate. When you’re hooked on giving someone else advice on how to achieve it, it boosts your self-confidence (why would they listen to you if you didn’t have something to offer?). It also forces you to be introspective about what works in ways you couldn’t otherwise. And of course, you’ll feel like a hypocrite if you don’t follow your own words of wisdom.

Happily, pursuing your New Year’s resolutions with friends is also more fun, and that’s another key to success.

6. One more thing

Let’s say New Year’s Day has passed when you’re reading this article and you feel like you’ve already failed. Science says no. You can start over at any new beginning you choose: next Monday, next month, or on your birthday. Or pick any day to start over and follow these five steps to establish another good habit.

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