The Surprising Truth About New Year’s Resolutions

And how you can make them work for you.

How to make New Year's resolutions work for you by CathyJacob at CathyJacob.com
Photo Credit: By Dolphfyn

New Year’s Resolutions get a bad rap.

Every year, we are inundated with articles on how they don’t work. We’re told we will likely fail to keep them, and we should either stop making them or change how we do it.

In an article for the BBC, Science Writer, David Robson consulted the research to answer the question, Are New Year’s resolutions powerful or pointless?

The results were surprising.

According to a 2020 survey of 1,500 American adults, most people who make New Year’s Resolutions keep some, if not all of them. About half (49%) of survey participants who made New Year’s Resolutions reported keeping some of their resolutions, while another third (35%) reported keeping all of them.

In fact, only 16% of those who made New Year’s resolutions failed to keep any of them.

It turns out, making New Year’s Resolutions capitalizes on a strong psychological driver in supporting behavior change – the psychology of a fresh start.

The psychological advantage of the fresh start effect.

We perceive our lives like a story that is divided into chapters. We tend to see life as a series of milestones like birth, starting school, graduating or starting a new job. Or through calendar milestones like birthdays, season changes and new years. These demarcation points help us remember and make meaning of our experience.

According to a 2015 study conducted by behavioral scientist, Katy Milkman and her colleagues, the ‘fresh start effect’ improves goal initiation and creates a kind of psychological distance from the “old imperfect you” and the “new improved you.”

These milestones or temporal landmarks offer a psychological ‘clean slate’ effect that motivates us to change and supports us to act on our goals.

This distancing of new you from the old you can be a useful motivator. It also has a dark side that I talk about in episode 1 of my podcast Sound Insight called Start here.

But for now, the question is, how can we leverage the fresh start effect to our advantage?

Three ways to make the most of the fresh start effect.

1. Work with your mind, not against it.

Our minds are not always as helpful in supporting us to make changes. Most of us have the propensity to get in our own way. The fact that a goal makes logical sense or might be good for us is often not enough to achieve it. But, understanding your psychological drivers and obstacles to change can make help you create conditions to make progress easier.

By taking the time to learn what motivates you and what is most likely to derail you, you can build the conditions to make it easier to succeed.

As a starting point, James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, offers some simple strategies to help you build new habits and break old ones.

To build a healthy habit, he says: “make it obvious; make it attractive; make it easy and make it satisfying.” To break a bad habit, he reverses the four rules: “make it invisible; make it unattractive; make it difficult; make it unsatisfying.”

With each small positive change you make, you build confidence in your ability to achieve the next one. As you become more adept at incorporating strategies that work for you, you learn that you can trust yourself to follow through.

2. Frame your resolutions for success.

Surprisingly, how you frame your resolutions can have an impact on whether or not you achieve them.

Set goals for what you will do, not what you’ll stop doing.

According a study of 1,066 people who made New Year’s resolutions, people who framed their goals in positive, action-oriented terms (I will exercise three times a week) were more successful at keeping them than people who set goals to avoid something (I will stop eating desserts).

Set goals for things you can control.

Set process versus outcome goals, to put yourself in the driver’s seat. Instead of “lose 10 pounds”, a goal that puts you at the mercy of a fickle scale; try a goal that will achieve the same effect but gives you total control. Something like “I will fast between 7 p.m. and 11 a.m. every day.” Or “I will prepare healthy snacks to eat at work.”

Be specific. 

Instead of “I will establish a regular exercise routine” try something like Gretchen Rubin’s, 23 for 23 challenge which challenges you to walk outdoors every day for 23 minutes in 2023. When you are specific, then you know exactly when you’ve gotten there. And there’s nothing that feels quite like putting a check mark beside an item on your resolutions list.

3. Theme your year.

This may seem frivolous, but if done well, this little practice can make a very big difference.

You’re going to be more successful if your motivation comes from inside. And the fastest way to intrinsic motivation is to draw a straight line between your New Year’s resolution and why it matters. When you can keep connected to the bigger why, it acts like rocket fuel to move you forward.

Every year, I do this through the practice of “creating a stake.”

I think of it as a creating theme with teeth. 

I learned this practice from Karen and Henry Kimsey-House, co-founders of The Coaches Training Institute.

A stake is not a goal or resolution. It’s a simple and compelling statement of intention. It’s a powerful metaphor that plays on a number of uses of the word stake – a stake that holds up things that are attached to it, a stake in a poker game, a stake in the ground or something you claim. Creating a stake for the year provides a memorable statement of intent, it holds you up when things get hard, it keeps you connected or tethered to what matters most, it is a something that you claim for yourself.  

My stake for 2023 is Level Up! (Exclamation intended.) It speaks to my desire to take important aspects of my life – my writing, my coaching, my health and relationships – to the next level. It’s a commitment to small but meaningful improvements. The “why” behind Level Up! is to support me to live my most creative and fulfilling life.

Here’s an example of how it works in practice. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to add 2 to 3 strength training sessions to my weekly exercise routine. Recently, I’ve read about how vital it is to health and longevity to strengthen your muscles as you get older. When I don’t feel like going to the gym (which is almost every time), I can look around my office, on my daily to do list, or in my daily journal and I will see “Level Up!” written somewhere.

It reminds me that my efforts matter and inspires me to stay with it. My track record of keeping promises to myself has improved immensely since engaging in this practice about 10 years ago.

What’s your stake for 2023?

As you launch 2023, consider taking advantage of the fresh start effect.

What are you resolved to do this year? And how will you set yourself up for success?

Put your stake in the ground and share it with us by leaving a comment. You never know how many others you might inspire.

Looking for more? Subscribe to The Slow Sip, my free monthly newsletter packed with articles, podcast episodes, practices and practical recommendations to help you transform your relationship to work and life.

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    Cathy Jacob

    I'm Cathy Jacob. I am a writer, coach and co-founder of Fire Inside Leadership. After two decades of coaching leaders on how to inspire while navigating the challenges of demanding careers and lives, I’ve created this site to share the best of what I’ve learned from my courageous clients and leaders in the fields of psychology, leadership, philosophy and neuroscience on what it takes to live an inspired life.

    4 Comments

    1. Lena on January 6, 2023 at 7:29 pm

      Hi Cathy,
      I love what I have seen and read so far. I’m going to devote time this weekend to being inspired.

      • Cathy Jacob on January 7, 2023 at 8:50 pm

        Thanks Lena. I guess that means you found it, so no need to send you the link. Thanks for your interest. I ordered you book yesterday. Can’t wait to read it!

    2. Suzanne Edwards on January 29, 2023 at 11:19 am

      I love the “level up”stake! I hope you don’t mind if I use it too. I definitely want to live my best life. I didn’t make any resolutions this year but after reading this, I’m going to rethink my fresh start. Thanks so much,, Cathy.

      • Cathy Jacob on January 31, 2023 at 6:20 pm

        I don’t mind at all. Go for it, Suzanne! Happy leveling up!!

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