Make a resolution to keep your resolution!

January 13, 2020

Did you make a New Year’s resolution? If so, you might be surprised to learn that the majority of people will break their resolutions before year’s end. But this is 2020—a new decade—so it’s the perfect year to start something new and succeed at it. 

One thing to note is that keeping resolutions is related to how memory works. When people make a resolution, that resolution usually stems from an intense feeling (often desire). The intensity of the emotion fades over time. Carly Leonard, PhD, a psychology professor in the Behavioral/Cognitive Science department, said, “It is hard to maintain resolutions actively in mind for a long time.” Leonard explains, “When we first make a New Year’s resolution, we make an effort to consciously think about it and the goal representation is strong.” 

The trick, then, is to tap into what you originally felt when you made the resolution. If that’s not possible, another tactic is to remember a moment when you were excited or felt intense desire—then apply that feeling back to the current resolution.

Besides tapping into the feeling behind your resolution, you can use these tips to help you succeed. Psychologists generally agree on the basic points for keeping New Year’s resolutions.

Make a resolution for the right reason.

New York Times article titled “How to Make (and Keep) a New Year’s Resolution” asks, “Is this a goal that really matters to you, and are you making it for the right reasons?” If you’ve made a resolution based on a negative emotion such as self-hatred or shame, then you’re less likely to keep it. The same goes for resolutions made for someone else. Resolutions made for the benefit of others—a spouse who wants you to quit smoking or a parent who wants you to spend less time texting—usually fail. Think about what you really want.

Start small.

The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests people make “resolutions that you think you can keep.” For example, don’t promise yourself you’re going to become fluent in a foreign language or run a marathon. Instead, resolve to take one foreign language class during the year or run at least three miles every week. If you set small goals, you’re more likely to achieve them.

calendar, watch, and cup of coffee on desk; photo by STIL via Unsplash
If you set a specific timeline, you’re more likely to succeed.

Establish a time frame.

PsychCentral offers “10 Sure Ways to Keep Your New Year’s Resolution.” Among the suggestions is to plan when exactly you will accomplish whatever you’re aiming for. “In fact, the time-frame is vital for motivation,” according to the article. The New York Times agrees, suggesting whatever goal you set be “time-bound.” In other words, you should know what you’re doing when—exactly. Instead of making a resolution for the entire (amorphous) year, specify what you’ll do in a given week or month or by a certain date.

Take Notes.

Writing things down helps keep you on track. People can use a journal, scrapbook, or smartphone app to write down what they’re doing to support their resolution. Writing down small successes along the way also reinforces positive feelings, which will in turn provide more motivation to achieve more goals.

Forgive yourself for failures.

Most people will experience setbacks along the way to achieving their New Year’s resolution. “Perfectionism is unattainable,” the APA writes. That’s why any resolution should include a secondary resolution: “resolve to recover from your mistakes and get back on track.” When something goes wrong, don’t focus on the bad. Focus on all the other times you succeeded.