It’s that time of year again — when seemingly every advertisement, social media post, or well-meaning loved one is quick to remind you how you’re due for a refresh, a restart, a rebrand. Self-improvement is difficult any time of year, but you may feel extra pressure to embark on a life change at the top of the new year. The desire to set goals often comes on the heels of the start of a new week, month, year, semester, or birthday, dubbed the “fresh start effect.” When the slate is wiped clean in any capacity, people feel more compelled to conquer a challenge.
New Year’s resolutions get a bad rap for being notoriously unattainable. Studies and surveys show that people aren’t great at sticking to resolutions, ditching them within the first month. However, the process you take in reaching the goal holds more weight than simply making a choice to change.
“The issue is not the resolutions themselves, it’s the way we approach them,” says Katy Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who studies the fresh start effect, is the host of the podcast Choiceology, and author of How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. “And that’s where science can help.”
Make meaningful, value-driven resolutions
Sticking to a resolution is far easier when it aligns with your priorities. Aiming to spend less money is an impressive goal, but there are plenty of opportunities to consume (and targeted ads urging you to do so). Charissa Chamorro, a supervising psychologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, recommends thinking about the top five values in your life and considering how your goal of spending less ties into these values. “Maybe your values are to be more ecologically aware and not consume so much,” she says. “Then that can be a motivator in terms of sticking to your habits.”
What matters to you most in life? In what ways can your attempts at self-improvement help serve those values? If having quiet time in your day is important to you, but you get frustrated whenever you attempt to meditate, perhaps reading a book before bed is a more achievable intention.
Get super specific with how you’ll work toward your goals
The problem with resolutions, Milkman says, is they’re too abstract: I’m going to be more patient, I’m going to volunteer more, I’m going to save money. These goals are admirable, but they don’t offer a guide on how to achieve those resolutions. After you set your benchmark goal, plan how you’ll do it. Ask yourself questions like “When will I volunteer?” “Where will I volunteer?” “How will I get there?” “How many hours a week will I dedicate to volunteering?” Research suggests that when people are intentional with how to implement a change, they’re more likely to achieve their goals.
Context is crucial to your plans. “Our goals may set the tone and motivate us to create habits,” Chamorro says, “but it’s actually engaging in daily, context-specific behaviors that creates a habit.” If you’re mapping out how to achieve a resolution, such as the popular resolution of improving fitness, think about how this goal fits into your pre-existing routines. Maybe you throw on workout clothes right after making your bed and before brushing your teeth and then you go for a 10-minute walk. Perhaps you want to cut down on alcohol in the new year. Make your surroundings more amenable to that goal and remove any adult beverages from your house and swap your wind-down glass of wine with a mocktail.
For people with already limited time, adding more items to your to-do list can be a deterrent to self-improvement. Milkman suggests focusing on one manageable goal at a time. Instead of vowing to be a more present parent, child, and friend, dedicate 30 minutes a week to a phone call with your parents.Read more at Vox.