The Simple, Science-Backed Trick To Keeping Your New Year's Resolution

A new study may have cracked the code to what makes people stick to their goals -- and it only takes a second.
Whatever your 2021 resolution may be, framing it as a positive could help you get there, experts say.
Whatever your 2021 resolution may be, framing it as a positive could help you get there, experts say.

New Year’s resolutions are notoriously hard to keep. Each year, by the time February rolls around, about 80% of people have failed to stick to theirs. And after the year we’ve all just had, thinking about any kind of self-improvement right now seems, well, absurd. Just doing what you need to do to get through the day is plenty in 2021. More than enough, really. A-plus.

But if you like making New Year’s resolutions and feel committed to doing so this year, new research published in the journal PLOS One offers a surprisingly simple tweak that could help you reach your goals.

Simply rephrase your resolution as something positive you’d like to commit to doing, rather than something you’d like to stop.

So think: I will start to do ______. Not, I will quit or avoid ______.

That’s because it’s hard — if not nearly impossible — to “erase a behavior, but you can replace it with something else,” study author Per Carlbring said in a press release discussing his team’s recent findings.

In 2017, the researchers recruited more than 1,000 people and encouraged them to make their own New Year’s resolutions. The participants were divided into three groups. One got no support at all, one got some support, and one had regular support throughout the year. Ultimately, the researchers found that it didn’t really matter much which group participants were sorted into.

“What surprised us were the results on how to phrase your resolution,” Carlbring said.

Nearly 60% of those who embraced what the researchers call an “approach goal” succeeded, compared to 47% of those who had “avoidance goals.”

That’s not necessarily a huge difference, but the researchers say their study — which they believe to be the largest on New Year’s resolutions to date — provides a simple, actionable technique for anyone interested in making a change.

“It doesn’t surprise me that framing resolutions more as working toward a positive outcome seems to be slightly more successful,” Lynn Bufka, the associate executive director for practice research and policy at the American Psychological Association, told HuffPost. (She did not work on the study.)

Bufka said the findings are in line with what researchers understand about goal-setting from the clinical world: Positive framing is helpful, as is establishing really specific goals. She also offered an example from her own life. In an effort to cut down on sweets, she has committed to eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. She’s not necessarily eliminating anything from her diet, but she is finding ways to sneak in more nutrition.

But all that said, experts really do warn against pushing yourself too hard as we head into 2021.

“For those who are choosing to make resolutions this year, I’d really encourage them to be realistic and kind to themselves,” Bufka said. “Many people are already pretty depleted, and don’t have the energy and cognitive resources to tackle significant change.”

So maybe this coming year, try something along the lines of: In 2021, I will start to be gentle with myself — whatever that means to you. Or, if the idea of a resolution is too much to even fathom, save this advice for another time and sit this one out. No one would blame you.