It’s that time again – when resolutions are made for the New Year – when we’re extra motivated to tackle goals and put past failures behind us. But for the majority of people, these pledges last only a few weeks into the New Year. A research study dating back to the late 1980s surveyed 200 New Year’s resolvers and found that 77% of the group (154 people) maintained their pledges for only a week. A 2019 research study using the app Strava and millions of user-logged activities saw most people giving up consistent exercise in just under 3 weeks. So, knowing this, how can we stick to our resolutions and goals? After all, unhealthy behaviors are responsible for a high percentage of health care costs and poor health outcomes. Behavioral scientists can provide some insights. First off, it’s best if a goal is concrete and bite-size. Avoid vague goals like “I’ll eat healthy” and come up with something more specific like “I’ll cook 4 days out of the week, focused on healthy protein and a variety of green and red vegetables.”  Here are some other tips:


  1. Make cue-based plans: When people encounter problems in translating their goals into action (like failing to get started, becoming distracted, or falling into bad habits), they can instead strategically call on automatic processes. Meaning, detail WHEN and WHERE you will follow through. Put your plan on a calendar where you’ll see it or set digital cues in the forms of alarms (like when it’s time to exercise).
  2. Penalty clauses: If it works for you, tell your friends and/or announce your goals on social media to be held accountable. Consider a “commitment device” where you voluntarily deposit money into accounts you can access again only if you accomplish a goal, or where you put money on the line on websites and you lose it if you don’t meet your goals. Research has shown that these types of techniques can help people lose weight, improve their diets, exercise more, and quit smoking.
  3. Make it fun! Focusing on efficiency doesn’t always work because you’ll neglect something very important: whether you actually enjoy pursuing the goal. If you don’t find the way you exercise or study to be fun, then you’re unlikely to keep at it. “Attending to the immediate rewards of health and academic activities increases persistence in these activities to a greater extent than attending to delayed rewards, even though these activities are selected for the delayed rewards they provide” (Woolley and Fishbach, 2016). Workout, cook or study with friends; use exercise cards or dice to take the guesswork out of what exercises to do.
  4. Allow for emergencies: the “what the hell” effect is when you deviate from a goal but instead of giving yourself a bit of slack, you declare yourself a failure and give up. Too tough or too easy goals without any wiggle room are set-ups for failure. If you fall off the wagon, get back on. Researchers “demonstrate how an explicitly defined emergency reserve not only is preferred over other options for goal-related programs but can also lead to increased persistence” (Sharif and Shu, 2017).
  5. Help from friends: Spending time with others who are motivated and ambitious, or who have accomplished goals like the ones we’ve set for ourselves, can boost our performance as well. You go further with a little help from friends! Coaching or mentoring others with shared goals can improve your own success rate, too, as you’ll feel responsible for following-through for their sake – and you benefit from it as well.


photo: by Ulyana Peña, of Ricardo Peña climbing at G1 climbing + fitness, Broomfield, CO