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5 Psychology hacks to help you stick to your resolutions


Six weeks. For 80 percent of people, that is how long it takes for their new year’s resolutions to fail. If you want to be the exception rather than rule, here are five hacks to give your resolutions the best chance of success.

Change one word in your self-talk

Could increasing the chances of sticking to your resolutions be as simple as changing one word? According to science, it can. Marketing Professor Vanessa Patrick recruited 120 university students and taught them two different strategies for managing unhealthy food temptations. One group was taught to say “I can’t eat X” when presented with an unhealthy snack. The other group was taught to say “I don’t eat X”.

Participants were then asked to complete a different (and irrelevant task), but then when they got up to leave the room, the crux of the experiment happened: they were offered a chocolate bar and a healthy granola bar. The experimenters quietly noted which participants picked which bar.

It turns out there was a big difference between the strategy people were taught and the bar they picked. Thirty-nine percent of those who were taught to say “I can’t eat X” chose the healthy granola bar. In contrast, 64% of those in the “I don’t eat X” group picked the granola bar. In other words, changing one simple word increased the likelihood of selecting the healthy snack by over 50%. So if your new year’s resolutions involve stopping a particular behaviour, say that you don’t do this behaviour, rather than you can’t.

Express gratitude to increase your self-control

Sticking to resolutions involves self-control – after all, we are trying to change habits that we have possibly had for many, many years. David DeSteno, a Psychology Professor from Northeastern University, set out to explore whether an act as simple as being grateful could improve our self-control muscle.

DeSteno asked people to spend a few minutes thinking about an event that made them feel grateful, happy or neutral. They were then offered the choice of receiving $18 immediately or $100 in a year. People who thought about an event they felt grateful for were twice as likely to wait one year for the extra money compared to the groups that thought about happy or neutral events. In other words, by feeling grateful, people were able to exert greater self-control.

To help your new year’s resolutions stick, spend a few minutes every day thinking about something you are grateful for. Doing so will build up your willpower and give your resolutions the best chance of success.

Write down your resolutions on a sheet of paper

Social scientists Delia Cioffi and Randy Garner explored the difference in commitment to goals when they are made actively versus passively. The researchers set up an experiment whereby students were asked to volunteer for an AIDS education project. Of those people who simply told the researchers verbally that they would volunteer (the passive group), only 17% actually turned up on the volunteering day. In contrast, those who wrote down their commitment to volunteer (the active group), had an 49% attendance rate.

The reason why writing down commitments more than doubles the chance of sticking to them is that we infer more about ourselves through the way we act. Taking the action of writing down a goal says much more about yourself compared to just thinking about a goal. And as such, we are more likely to follow through.

Just set one resolution to start with

We often talk about new year’s resolutions in the plural. It is assumed we will set more than just one. However, this is where we could be getting it all wrong. New year’s resolutions are generally about habit change. And habits are hard to change. They take a large amount of self-control and self-discipline. Psychology Professor Roy F. Baumeister recommends starting with just one resolution – and starting with the easiest one first. By starting with your easiest one, you will hopefully get some success and build up momentum, and by doing so, exercise your willpower muscle which will help it get stronger. This then increases the chance of success for changing more challenging habits.

Set mini-goals to create a sense of progress

Many people’s resolutions consist of big goals. Quit smoking. Lose 15 pounds. Go to the gym every day.  A trick to helping you achieve your resolutions is to break your big goal into sub-goals. For example, if your goal is lose 15 pounds, break it down into losing five pounds in January, five in February and five in March.

Harvard Psychology Professor Teresa Amabile found that creating small wins is the key to driving engagement in what we do. And by breaking your big goal into a series of little goals, you will feel a bigger sense of progress through hitting your smaller goals more frequently.

By spend time thinking critically about the resolutions you set this year and using one or more of these psychology hacks, you’ll give yourself the best chance of being in the select group of 20% of people whose new year’s resolutions are still going strong many months into the new year.

About Dr Amantha Imber

Dr Amantha Imber is the Founder of behavioural science consultancy Inventium and the host of How I Work, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful innovators. Sign up to be part of Amantha’s Year of Better, a quest to become more productive, creative, happier, and an all-round better person through a year's worth of experiments.

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