How to Set Great New Year’s Resolutions (Backed by Scientific Research!)

This is an expansion of a post I wrote on Quora (the social q & a site) that answered the question: “What Are the Best New Year’s Resolutions?

Is it possible to set successful New Years Resolutions?

I am a big believer in personal change. I think that we have a power within ourselves to dramatically change most aspects of our human experience for the better without the use of drugs, money, fame, the “perfect” mate or anything else.

Most of the good things in life can be acquired for free, or for very little money, through simply focusing on doing things (over and over) that will make you feel the way you want to feel. Is this a little vague? Here are some more concrete examples:

  • Feeling happy: start a happiness project – figure out what makes you happy and do more of it, figure out what makes you unhappy, eliminate it from your life, get therapy
  • Feeling healthy: do a combination of anaerobic and aerobic exercise 2-3 times a week for 30+ mins, eat a primarily plant based diet that’s low in refined sugars and saturated fat
  • Feeling smart: block out time to read high quality fiction and non fiction literature, write essays, converse with intelligent people on subjects that interest you, do brainteasers, play chess
  • Feeling confident: do positive affirmations, work on developing a skill that you are better than most people at, act “as if”, hang around other confident people

At Stanford, I had the opportunity to create and lead instruction for a course called “The Psychology of Personal Change” (PSYCH 15S). I’ll write a longer post on the experience overall but basically it was a chance for me to really dive into a subject I’m really passionate about.

About 36 students signed up to take this 2 unit course held in Spring of 2009. The first half of the course was reading papers, the second half was putting the learnings into action via a personal change project that each student did. Don’t remember the final numbers but I’d say a majority of the students made significant headway into their behavior change.

There is actually some really great research out there on the study of how people are able to self-initiate and sustainably maintain behavior change (smoking, drinking, diet, exercise, etc).

One stunning fact: in several studies published in peer-reviewed journals of 150+ people, about 40% of participants in each study who could be reached at 6 months said they were still being successful with their resolutions.

The Bottom line: You CAN make change your life and plenty of people succeed in setting New Year’s Resolutions

What are the qualities of great New Year’s resolutions?

In general, I believe a great New Year’s Resolution:

  1. improves your well-being or the well being of other sentient creatures
  2. has a decent chance of actually being achieved

To get more specific, a great set of New Year’s Resolutions have these qualities:

  • They are typically behavioral changes that are largely within your control (Resolutions should not be confused with Goals – which are external targets that rely substantially on things outside of your immediate control)
  • They are concrete and measurable (otherwise how will you or anyone else know that you achieved them?)
  • They are limited to 2-3 at one time. (Too many makes it difficult to stay on track on all of them, increasing the chances you’ll get overwhelmed and dump the whole thing)
    • It might actually be better to have resolutions for the 1st six months and after you have achieved and internalized those, go after another set of resolutions for the 2nd six months.
  • You have a strong desire to make the change (sounds obvious but can be overlooked. Do you want it or do you *want to want it*?)
  • You believe that you actually can and will maintain this behavior change (Again, also sounds obvious but most people don’t think about this)
  • You are ready to make this change NOW (not in a few weeks or a few months. Everything is set to go right away)
  • You have a some tactics you’ve prepared (reminders, an accountability partner, rewards for success) and a plan of action (“call Sue and ask for her help”) for making the change really work

So How exactly would I go about doing this?

Block out some time – maybe a few hours spread out over a few days. Think about what’s going on in your life. What’s going well? What’s not going so well? Consider what the root causes are – what can you do to make things go more right? What can you do to make things go less wrong?

You probably already have some things you’d like to change about your life. Let’s say you want to stop being late for everything (a problem that I definitely have). Spend some time thinking about whether you really want to not be late – why is it so important for you to make this change? Are you ready to spend a lot of mental energy *trying* to avoid being late? Will the satisfaction of being on time everywhere out-weight all the  time, effort and opportunity costs spent on making the change?

If it is, then design a program that will help you actually achieve this goal – starting with specific behavioral milestones you’d like to reach (“I am late to work 2 times or less in a week  by Jan 30th”) and COMMIT to making the resolution happen – while staying open to changing your tactics/program.

On what research are you basing all these absurd claims?

There are actually a lot of great studies in peer-reviewed journals on the effectiveness of New Year’s Resolutions. I’ve read lots of them when I was preparing my course on the psychology of personal change – but don’t have the time to summarize all of them here. Let’s dive into the data on one such study shall we?

Auld Lang Syne: Success Predictors, Change Processes, and Self-Reported Outcomes of New Year’s Resolvers and Nonresolvers

John C. Norcross, Marci S. Mrykalo, and Matthew D. Blagys – University of Scranton – JOURNAL OF CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY, Vol. 58(4), 397–405 (2002)

  • 159 “resolvers” interested in changing vs “123” non-resolver control subjects (subjects are all white, mostly female, and located in NE Pennsylvania)
  • Get structured telephone interviews before Jan 1 and 1-2 weeks, 3-4 weeks, 3 months & 6 months after Jan 1
  • Weight loss, exercise program and quitting smoking were top change processes
  • END RESULTS: “Although the success rates of New Year’s resolutions obviously depend on the interval and criteria considered, the proportion of self-reported continuous success was 46% at six months. This figure is consistent with, although a bit higher, than that reported previously in samples of student and community volunteers (Gritz et al., 1988; Marlatt & Kaplan, 1972; Norcross et al., 1989).”
  • KEY FINDINGS: (Parenthetical additions are mine) “Nine processes differentiated (with statistical significance) successful and nonsuccessful resolvers at 1 and 2 weeks. Successful resolvers reported using – self-liberation (aka will power) – reinforcement management (aka rewards or incentives) – stimulus control (aka reminders for the right behavior) – avoidance strategies (aka avoiding situations where you would do the wrong thing) – positive thinking significantly more than nonsuccessful resolvers. By contrast, nonsuccessful resolvers employed – self-reevaluation (thinking about how your problem is hurting you) – self-blame – wishful thinking, and – minimize threat (tell yourself the problem isn’t that bad) significantly more than the successful resolvers.” (so don’t do those things!)

Bottom Line: It is totally possible to make significant changes to your behavior but it takes serious commitment and some strategy to do it effectively. And I’ve read lots of these kinds of papers.

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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  4. I enjoyed this post, Jason, and I posted about it over on my own site in a post called “New Year’s Resolutions for Change from the Inside Out” at . (Warning: post contains minor semantic quibbling.) I’ll be interested to dig more deeply into your site.

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