How to actually make and keep New Year’s resolutions, according to a behavioral scientist

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new year's eve 2018
Here comes

Drew Angerer/Getty

  • Most people don’t keep their New Year’s resolutions,
    and some even prefer to revel in their failures.
  • Psychologists say in order to successfully change, you
    have to really want things to be different, and you also have
    to stick to your plan.
  • If you’re trying to break an old habit, replace it with
    a new one. Otherwise, it can be too hard to say no to


Does anyone take New Year’s resolutions seriously anymore?

Former President Obama doesn’t. He acknowledged as much in a

recent interview
with Prince Harry on the BBC:

“I’m not sure I believe in New Year’s resolutions – typically
people break them,” the former president said.

Prince Harry’s fiancee Meghan Markle says she isn’t a fan of
keeping to strict New Year’s resolutions anymore, either. The
wrote in 2016
that her only intention for that new year was
to “leave room for magic.”

But if you’re looking to make a few more (ahem) solid
changes to your daily routines this year, th
ere are ways
that psychologists say you actually can make New Year’s
resolutions a success.

Here are three of their top tips:

Tip #1: Only make New Year’s resolutions if you really
want to changefitness weight lifting weightlifting workout gym exercise womanShutterstock

Think about why you’re resolving to try something new: Are you
just a little curious how it might feel? Are you trying something
out just because the rest of the gang is doing it? Or, are you
really sick and tired of the way things are and you’re finally
ready to make a change? That could be a sign that this is the
year to try out a New Year’s resolution.

Yale psychology Professor John Bargh told Business Insider
that people should
only resolve to try something new this
year if it’s really important to them personally, and it’s
something they’d want to change even when no one else is

“I wouldn’t play around with these things,” Bargh

esearchers at Harvard Medical School agree.

They write
that “long-lasting change is most likely when it’s
self-motivated and rooted in positive thinking.” 

It’s best to pick a specific goal — not just “I want to get more
exercise” but, specifically how much and when, like: “I’m going
to bike for 30 minutes, 4 days a week,” for example. Making
specific, measurable actions a part of your daily routine,
triggered by things you do every day (like coming home from work
and popping on a pair of running shoes at the back door) make it
easier to succeed. 

Another part of the reason that New Year’s resolutions so often
fail, Bargh says, is that people enjoy sharing their failures
with others. “Bragging” about how we just can’t resist our
favorite temptations can foster a sense of belonging and
camaraderie among the not-so-resolved. But the old
therapist’s mantra rings true for resolutions, too: Y
don’t change unless you really want to.

Tip #2: Keep your new promise to yourself (and to your body) for
an entire month, without exceptionpinky promiseThe
body remembers a broken promise.
Arris via Wiki Commons

Many of the habitual actions we do every day require very little
thinking: driving a car, washing our hands, typing on a keyboard,
or picking which route to take to school or to work in the
morning are all tasks that become largely second-nature over
time, requiring less and less of our conscious mind. The brain
and body learn from these everyday habits and start anticipating
how to act.

That’s why it’s important to stay consistent with a new

“You don’t wanna make promises that you don’t keep to your body
and your mind,” Bargh said.  

it can take as little as 18 days or as long as 254
to pick up a new routine, depending on what you’re trying to do,
but Bargh says a month is a good measuring stick for trying on a
new resolution. If you try something out for the first 31 days of
the year and you don’t like the change, you can decide to forgo
it in February, but give the idea a fighting chance, first, with
a month of solid, uninterrupted effort.  

Tip #3: Replace the bad with the goodalcohol drink boozeReplace
old temptations with something new.

You know that little kid who needs to be distracted with a shiny
object to stop crying? Well, your body and mind are a lot like
that kid when they’re trying to form new habits and move into new
patterns. We typically need to
replace an old, stale behavior
with a new one.

Bargh successfully mastered this trick once himself when he
decided he wanted to quit drinking. Instead of coming home and
sipping on an alcoholic beverage, he scoured his home of all
alcoholic indulgences and instead started sucking on sugary
Tootsie Pops anytime he had a fresh urge for a tipple. It gave
his mouth something positive, fun and new to do. He even made a
little game out of the new habit: wadding up his lollipop
wrappers and tossing them to the cat to bat around like some kind
of feline Derek Jeter.

Whether you’re interested in finally giving an old New Year’s
resolution a real go this year, or you’re just ready for
something new, Bargh says initiating change is always tough. So,
his final piece of advice is a simple one: If you are going to
resolve to do something new, “do it for yourself,” he says. 

Otherwise, it’s probably not a change worth fighting for in
the first place.

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