The psychology of New Year’s resolutions

Welcome to 2024. You made it. If you’re like most people, you probably have considered at least a few resolutions for the new year. Unfortunately, science suggests achieving these goals could be difficult.

The reasoning is simple. New Year’s resolutions are essentially goals: statements of desirable objectives that you want to accomplish. Those who study motivation psychology suggest that goals rarely work well.

Put differently, many, if not most, goals are never actually put into practice, a reality that eventually could lead to frustration and depression.

In a recent article for Psychology Today, Dr. Carlos Alos-Ferrer noted that goals come from the more rational, long-term-oriented part of your brain. “Say you want to lose a few pounds, or be nicer to people, or cut down on social media; you are not struggling to see why you want to change,” he wrote. “The problem is the more impulsive, short-term-oriented part of your brain, the one that sustains your habits and takes over most of your day-to-day actions. Your brain is very good at automatizing behavior, freeing resources for other things. But, when those automatic behaviors conflict with your long-term goals, you struggle.”

Dr. Alos-Ferrer went on to write that when we state a New Year’s resolution (or any long-term goal, for that matter), we are essentially setting our brains up to fail. Instead, the motivation psychologist suggested a different approach: To think of resolutions like actionable programs.

In the same article, Dr. Alos-Ferrer provided one possible framework for more realistically achieving goals and resolutions—an approach from the world of management. The framework operates under the acronym SMART, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Related. To put yourself in a position to achieve a goal, it’s important that your goal meet all five of these requirements:

  • Specific: State a desired outcome. Instead of saying, “I want to lose weight,” say, “I want to lose 10 pounds.” Instead of saying, “I want to spend less time staring at my phone,” say, “I want to cut my screen time down by a third.”
  • Measurable: Quantify your progress. So long as you’re keeping track of progress in some way, you’re headed in the right direction. If, for instance, your goal is to read more books, plan to make a list of all the books you complete.
  • Achievable: Be realistic. Though you might want to win Major League Baseball’s Cy Young Award, if you’re currently an out-of-shape accountant, holding baseball immortality as a goal might be a bit far-fetched.
  • Relevant: Pick a goal that matters to you. If you don’t have children, setting a goal of spending more time with kids isn’t going to be viable.
  • Time-Related: Set a time frame by which you can either a) achieve your objectives or b) evaluate your progress toward them. To build on an earlier example, instead of saying, “I want to lose 10 pounds,” say, “I want to lose 10 pounds by May 1.”

A recent article in Popular Science magazine echoed some of these thoughts (though with different words and reference points).

Beyond these concepts, it’s important to get your brain to build new habits. Here, Dr. Alos-Ferrer suggested setting “action triggers,” a powerful technique developed by German psychologists Peter Gollwitzer and Anja Achtziger. Dr. Alos-Ferrer also referred to these as “implementation intentions.” He explained them as a way to hijack previous ways of thinking with new approaches to success.

“Rather than fighting that part of your brain and being endlessly frustrated when you lose, a good way to make goals work is to hijack it and make it work for you,” he wrote. “The impulsive part of your brain does not speak in statements; it speaks in conditionals. If I see this, I will do that. Your automatic behaviors are like little computer programs which recognize a situation and run a few commands as a consequence.”

The bottom line: Be smart and tactical about how you approach resolutions. Another tip: Be patient. Nothing happens overnight. Failure is inevitable. Expect progress, not perfection. All of these mantras likely will put you in a better position for success throughout the year.