How To Make A New Year's Resolution That Sticks

Dr.Laurie Santos
January 7, 2021

I make new year's resolutions every year. Not necessarily ones that I stick to, sadly, but I definitely make resolutions.

I do that because behavioral science suggests it's actually a good idea. The Wharton psychologist Katherine Milkman, for example, has shown that there are these times when our motivation is simply higher than usual. The beginning of January is one of those times; Milkman calls it “the fresh start effect.” We feel like the mistakes of the past are gone, and we have this fresh clean slate. And that can feel very powerful. So I’m pro-resolution.

The problem is that people tend to do resolutions wrong. Studies show that up to 95% of new year’s resolutions just don’t stick. Why? First, we often pick goals that don’t end up making us all that happy. And second, we’re confused about how to go about getting towards those goals.

One error we make is to banish all bad emotions in the new year. We think that once January 1st rolls around, everything needs to be wonderful. But avoiding our negative emotions comes at a cost to our overall happiness.

Especially this year, we need to let the negativity in a little. We need to give ourselves some time to grieve over the fact that 2020 was a pretty awful, challenging year. We need to process the fact that many of us are still reeling. And, honestly, we need to recognize that many of the goals we might want to have for the new year might be harder to achieve during a global pandemic.

But even in good years, we tend to be confused about which goals will make us happy. We want to be thinner or buffer or have better savings or a bigger bank account, or a new PlayStation 5. We think that changing our circumstances will improve our well-being, but the research on happiness suggests that changing your circumstances just doesn't work as well as we think. New circumstances might make us happier for a little while, but you tend to get adapted to awesome new circumstances pretty quickly.

And that’s why we're actually better off focusing on resolutions that involve changing our mindsets. For example, trying to look at the world through a different lens; trying to become more present; trying to become more grateful; trying to become more compassionate. Those are the kinds of changes that really will have a longstanding impact on our wellbeing. The problem is that we don't realize changes like these are so powerful, and so they tend not to be in the big list of new year's resolutions that we see every year.

But we’re not just wrong about the content of the kinds of resolutions we make— we’re also often wrong in how we go about them.

At the start of the new year, many of us turn into these awful personal drill sergeants. We yell at ourselves with phrases like you suck or you’re too fat and lazy or you’re procrastinating. We think that this kind of shaming is going to help, but in fact, the shaming is doing more harm than good. We'd be better off taking a completely different approach: the approach of self-compassion.

Take the example of exercise. A resolution to exercise more is right-on. Just getting in a little bit of cardio exercise can be incredibly important for your mental health—there’s one study showing that a half hour of cardio every morning is as effective as one of the leading anti-depression prescriptions. So, exercise in and of itself an awesome goal for 2021.

The problem is how we go about it. When you look at magazine articles that talk about exercise in the new year, they often sound militaristic, blasting your belly and punishing workouts and things like that. That’s not necessarily being all that kind to your body.

We should approach exercise from the perspective of self-compassion— asking the question “what would be a way to move my body that would feel kind right now?” There are some kinds of exercises that may not be fun for you. There are some times when your body needs some rest. And if you don’t pay attention to what your body really needs, you're going to be pushing against the tide. You're going to be trying to make yourself commit to things that just aren't fun and that may not even be good for your body.

Coming to terms with being nice to my body hasn’t always been hard for me. I was the chubby kid in gym class; fitness was always something that I was either forced to do, or did out of a hatred of my body. So it took a lot of coming around to figure out that I could move my body because it just feels good. It was a revelation for me that exercise can be something I look forward to.

And that’s true for many other areas of life as well— from healthier eating to taking on a hard project at work to fighting procrastination and beyond. Your ability to stick with a resolution will increase if you take a compassionate approach. If you boost your self-compassion, you’ll naturally eat healthier and take care of your body, because that’s a way to be kind to yourself. You're more likely to continue at a hard project even after setbacks, because you know you’ll be nice to yourself if you mess up. Whatever other things you want to achieve in the new year, focusing on self-compassion is actually going to help you get there.

Self-compassion is kind of like a meta-resolution: it can make all the other resolutions a little bit easier, and it will actually boost your wellbeing on its own too. It’s a win-win. If you want a strategy that's going to allow you to meet your goals and not procrastinate and not be worried about failure, self-compassion is really powerful. The science shows—it really works.

Dr. Laurie Santos is a tenured psychology professor at Yale, where she teaches a massively popular course on happiness. She also hosts a podcast called The Happiness Lab.

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