In 2024, I vow to...
- Lose weight
- Exercise more
- Eat healthier
- Improve my mental health
- Save more money
If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. Weight loss, fitness, diet, mental health, and finances make up the top five most common themes for New Year’s resolution among Americans.1 But you’re also not alone if you’ve struggled to stick with these annual goals over time. Research suggests that, while 77% of people can keep their resolutions for one week, only 19% maintain them for 2 years.2
It’s time for a paradigm shift in how we think about New Year’s resolutions. Let go of the idea that you can set a perfect resolution, accomplish it flawlessly, and never look back. Instead, orient yourself around goal setting that is realistic, allows for natural fluctuations, and translates to sustainable results.
What Is the Psychology Behind New Year’s Resolutions?
As a society, we attach a great deal of meaning to New Year’s resolutions due to a psychological phenomenon called the “fresh start effect.” The fresh start effect describes an increase in motivation to make behavior changes in the period surrounding a time-based milestone. New Year’s Day isn’t the only milestone that triggers the fresh start effect; researchers have also observed this effect around birthdays, weddings, new semesters, and even national elections.3
The reason the fresh start effect increases motivation is that it provides a clean slate—or at least the illusion of one. New Year’s Day serves as a dividing line between any slipups or “failures” we experienced in the past and allows us to envision a new version of ourselves that will be successful in accomplishing our goals.
The fresh start effect can be a powerful catalyst for change as we head into the new year, but it can also lead to unrealistic goal setting and expectations. Thinking only about the before-and-after picture can lead to underestimating obstacles that will arise. Progress is not linear; it requires navigating through ongoing ups and downs with regular setbacks. Planning for challenges and being realistic and adaptable are essential parts of successful behavior change.
How to Approach New Year’s Resolution Ideas
First, think about what changes you’d like to make and why they matter to you. Reflect on whether these changes are externally imposed (extrinsic) or if they come from within (intrinsic). Numerous research studies demonstrate that people are more likely to achieve intrinsically motivated goals.4
For example, if you feel like you should exercise more due to pressure from others or based on media standards, but you don’t want to exercise more, you may have a difficult time accomplishing that goal. In contrast, if you have a desire within yourself to exercise more because you know it will feel good and improve your health, then that intrinsic motivation will help you make meaningful progress.
Once you’ve settled on what’s important to you to accomplish this year, set one or more specific resolutions. The way you frame a goal—and the specific words you use—matter. A few different techniques for goal setting are supported by scientific evidence. Each person is different, so it might help to experiment with the following approaches and see what works best for you.
Set a SMART Goal
One common framework for goal setting is to create a SMART goal. SMART stands for:
The SMART goal structure is one of the most widely utilized approaches to setting goals because it helps you channel your broader desires into a focused target and allows you to track your progress.5
Below is an example of how to turn a vague goal into a SMART goal:
Set an Approach-Oriented Goal
Something else to consider when setting a goal is whether the goal is avoidance-oriented or approach-oriented. Avoidance-oriented goals involve moving away from something you don’t want, while approach-oriented goals involve moving toward something you do want. Researchers have found that people are more likely to be successful in accomplishing approach-oriented goals than avoidance-oriented goals.6
Set a Learning Goal
Another way to think about your New Year’s resolution is whether it is a performance goal or a mastery goal. Performance goals involve measuring your ability while learning goals involve growing a new skill or improving your existing ones. Setting learning goals can help you actively engage with the process of self-improvement without judging yourself over falling short. They have also been shown to improve confidence, proficiency, and knowledge.7
Here’s an example:
After using one or more of these approaches to set your resolution for the new year, be sure to write it down. It might help to keep your resolution in a place where you will see it regularly so that you’re reminded of what you want to work toward each day.
However, just because your goal is written down doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. Progress often requires rethinking and reworking based on your own lived experience. You may find that a goal isn't working for you, and that’s okay. Tweak your goal and try again. It’s all part of the process.
5 Tips to Help You Keep Your New Year’s Resolution
In the words of French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” Once you’ve selected your New Year’s resolution, be sure to take these additional steps to set yourself up for success:
- Create an action plan. An action plan illuminates where, how, and when your goal will be implemented. If your resolution is to practice meditation daily, you might consider things like where you’ll meditate, whether you’ll use an app, and how you will integrate meditation into your daily routine. Don’t be afraid to revisit your action plan repeatedly and adjust it as you learn about what works and what doesn’t.
- Anticipate challenges. Think about the situations or circumstances that will make it more difficult to work toward your goal. If your resolution is to quit smoking, make a list of the things that trigger your desire to smoke, such as being around cigarettes or feeling stressed. Next, think of alternative coping strategies you can use when those situations arise and write them down so you can redirect yourself when the craving hits.
- Ask for help. Getting support can make a significant difference in reaching your goal. Talk with your loved ones about your resolution and how they can help you, whether it’s joining you in an activity, helping to hold you accountable, or lending a listening ear when things get tough.
- Have fun. Changing behavior and habits isn’t easy, but with a little creativity, it can be enjoyable. Think about ways you can turn even the most difficult aspects of your goal into pleasurable experiences. For example, save your favorite music or TV series for when you’re at the gym or purchase a fun apron for cooking healthy meals at home.
- Celebrate small successes. New Year’s resolutions tend to offer long-term rewards, like improved mental or physical health, but they may lack short-term payoffs. Make sure you celebrate smaller milestones by rewarding yourself in ways that are meaningful and enjoyable to you. Research shows that building immediate rewards into the process of working toward a long-term goal improves persistence.8
New Year’s Resolutions Ideas to Avoid
Take care to sidestep common pitfalls when it comes to New Year’s resolution ideas. Below are some New Year’s resolutions to avoid and ideas to improve them.
“I will do one push-up every day.”
Studies show that if your resolution is too easy, you are less likely to stick with it.5 Doing a pushup might be challenging on Day 1, but after a week or two, that one pushup will be a breeze, and this goal will quickly become unmotivating.
A resolution that is difficult but achievable and incorporates strength-building might look like this:
“I will do push-ups every day, starting with 1 rep per day and adding 1 rep every week until I am able to do 30 pushups per day by the end of July.”
“I will run 3,000 miles this year.”
If you’re an endurance athlete, this might be a practical goal for you, but most of us don’t have the time or stamina to run 3,000 miles within a year. Goals that are too ambitious set you up for failure. When you are deciding on a New Year’s resolution, it’s important to be realistic rather than idealistic. Choose something that you know will challenge you but that you are confident you will be able to sustain week in and week out. True behavior change means incremental progress over the long term.
A realistic alternative to this resolution could be:
“I will increase my running mileage by 5% each week until I am consistently averaging 15 miles per week.”
“I will eat healthier, exercise more, spend more time with my family, start volunteering, and learn how to speak Italian.”
Just as it’s misguided to set a New Year’s resolution that’s too ambitious, you should also avoid setting too many resolutions at once. Each one of these goals requires careful work and dedication. It can be overwhelming to try to make multiple difficult changes at once. If you have numerous goals you want to work toward, great! Start with one or two for now, and over time you can gradually add additional goals when you feel ready to tackle new challenges.
Here is a more feasible version of the resolution ideas above:
“I will have dinner with my family once per week. I will volunteer at the soup kitchen near my house two times per month.”
“I will never have another bite of junk food ever again.”
This resolution is rigid and doesn’t leave any room for moderation. For most people, total abstinence from certain foods, habits, or activities isn’t realistic. However, it can help to create a general trend for yourself, like eating more healthy snacks, while still leaving room for a treat here and there. Additionally, it’s important to avoid being so strict with yourself that you don’t leave room to revisit your goals and amend them based on what you’re learning through experience.
A more flexible goal might look like this:
“On weekdays, I will pack my lunch with only healthy snacks.”
That said, if January isn’t a good time to make changes in your life, that’s okay too. New Year’s Day is an arbitrary deadline for setting a goal. Nothing is stopping you from holding off until you feel the timing is right.
Also, remember that change is hard. No matter what you decide to pursue in the new year, be kind and patient with yourself, and take it one step at a time.
- Davis, Sarah. “New Year’s resolutions statistics 2024.” Forbes, 4 December 2023, https://www.forbes.com/health/mind/new-years-resolutions-statistics/. Accessed 7 December 2023.
- Norcross, .J C., and D. J. Vangarelli. “The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year's change attempts.” Journal of Substance Abuse, vol. 1, no. 2, 1988, pp. 127-34, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29753243/.
- Dai, Hengchen, and Claire Li. “How experiencing and anticipating temporal landmarks influence motivation.” Current Opinion in Psychology, vol. 26, 2019, pp. 44-48, https://anderson-review.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Dai-Li_2018_TemporalLandmarks_CurrentOpinioninPsychology.pdf.
- Deci, E. L., and Ryan, R. M. “The "what" and "why" of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior.” Psychological Inquiry, vol. 11, no. 4, 2000, pp. 227–268, https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2000_DeciRyan_PIWhatWhy.pdf.
- Bailey, Ryan R. “Goal setting and action planning for health behavior change.” American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, vol. 13, no. 6 2017, pp. 615-618, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6796229/.
- Oscarsson, Martin et al. “A large-scale experiment on New Year's resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals.” PloS One, vol. 15, no. 12, 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7725288/.
- Bell, Bradford S., and Steve W. J. Kozlowski. “Goal orientation and ability: Interactive effects on self-efficacy, performance, and knowledge.” The Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 87, no. 3, 2002, pp. 497-505, https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2002-01666-008.
- Woolley, Kaitlin, and Ayelet Fishbach. “Immediate rewards predict adherence to long-term goals.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 43, no. 2, 2017, pp. 151-162, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27899467/.
Alexa Fry is a health educator with a certificate in technical writing and 10 years of experience in the medical field. She has held roles as a science writer and clinical trial specialist at the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Service. She also wrote, edited, and coordinated content for Testing.com, SleepFoundation.org, and SleepDoctor.com. Alexa is passionate about making meaningful, actionable medical information available to everyone.