12 New Year’s resolutions backed by science that could actually work

The end of the year is fast approaching, so that means it’s time to think about… resolutions. If 2018 is anything like more or less every other year, your resolutions this year are likely to focus on things like losing weight, exercising more, learning new skills, and generally enjoying life more.

The problem with resolutions, of course, is that we break them. Only about  8-12% of people report sticking to their resolutions. Intentions are easy; following through is hard. Research on resolutions tells us there are three basic problems:

  1. Our resolutions are too vague.
  2. They require too much willpower.
  3. They lack tangible cues and rewards to keep us on track.

Here, then, are 12 ideas for resolutions — backed by science — that might actually work.

1. To lose weight

We do better at maximizing (well, in this case minimizing) metrics we track. Setting a specific goal in pounds, however, is setting yourself up for failure. Instituting a system to keep healthy eating on your mind — and to give yourself regular numerical feedback — is more likely to get results.

Don’t resolve:
I will lose 15 pounds.

Do resolve:
I will weigh myself every morning.

2. To exercise more

The lowest-effort, highest-impact thing you can do to get more exercise is to start walking more. And we’re much more likely to exercise when we plan when and where ahead of time.

Don’t resolve:
I will join a gym.

Do resolve:
I will take a walk to the park near work every day at lunchtime.

3. To save more

Don’t leave saving more money up to end-of-each-month you. Do all of your saving for the year in one fell swoop, taking advantage of the powerful principle of pre-commitment.

Don’t resolve:
I will save 10% more of my income.

Do resolve:
Today, I will set up a recurring, automated savings deposit of $X on the 1st of every month.

4. To learn a language

Learning a new language or skill is consistently one of Americans’ top resolutions. These types of resolutions, however, are the beginning of a long journey. So, here’s a way to stay on track. Studies have found that rewarding yourself along the way is one key to following through on your resolutions. So tie skill practice directly to a reward.

Don’t resolve:
I will learn Italian this year.

Do resolve:
I will study Italian for 30 minutes every day — and, if I stay on track, I will reward myself at the end of each month with a meal at my favorite Italian restaurant.

5. To get more sleep

On average, we should all be getting seven to nine hours of sleep. Easier said than done. However, one specific thing you can do is take heed of the research showing just how bad it is to surround ourselves with glowing rectangles ahead of bedtime.

Don’t resolve:
I will get more sleep.

Do resolve:
I will put away my laptop and tablet computers for at least two hours before bed.

6. To feel less stress

One of the biggest sources of stress in modern life is email. Research has found professionals spend as many as 13 hours a week checking it. An experiment out of the University of British Columbia found that limiting the number of times a day a person checks email significantly reduces one’s stress level.

Don’t resolve:
I will try to relax more.

Do resolve:
I will turn off email notification on my phone and only check my accounts three times a day.

7. To be happier

Directly trying to be happy tends to lead to a backfire effect. But there are plenty of indirect changes you can make that have happiness as a side-effect. A big one: practicing gratitude.

Don’t resolve:
I will try to be happier.

Do resolve:
I will write down three things every day for which I am grateful.

8. To travel more

One of the most effective ways to keep a resolution is to break it down into pieces and to have a plan. Take something like the common, but vague, resolution to travel more. You don’t have to drop everything and jump on a plane tomorrow; at the same time, if you don’t take concrete steps, you may not get it together this year to see more of the world.

Don’t resolve:
I will travel more.

Do resolve:
I will choose a destination in March, I will put in for vacation time and book everything by June, and I will take a trip in August.

9. To cook more

Another important factor in keeping resolutions is to give yourself cues to encourage the behavior you’re trying to cultivate. If you’re trying to eat better — or just enjoy a hobby — what could be simpler than signing yourself up for one of the growing number of meal-kit delivery services?

Don’t resolve:
I will cook more.

Do resolve:
I will sign up, today, for a cooking-related delivery service.

10. To volunteer more

Volunteering has been linked to positive outcomes for mental and physical health. Motivation, however, is always a challenge. Studies are clear that one of the biggest factors in changing our behavior is the group with which we spend time.

Don’t resolve:
I will volunteer more.

Do resolve:
I will join this specific charitable organization.

11. To quit smoking

A classic for a reason. But recent research has found that smokers have a greater likelihood of quitting if they receive regular encouragement.

Don’t resolve:
I will quit smoking.

Do resolve:
I will sign up today for regular text messages from the National Cancer Institute.

12. To find a new job

Daydreaming at your desk isn’t going to get you there. Nor is writing down “find a new job” on your year’s to do list. Instead, take concrete-but-achievable steps that will increase your odds of success. Networking is key — remember that something like 80% of jobs are never even advertised.

Don’t resolve:
I will find a new job.

Do resolve:
I will set up at least one networking lunch or coffee every week.

And PS: Don’t tell anyone your resolutions! Research shows it can create a premature sense of accomplishment. Also, pick one, two, or three resolutions at most; too many resolutions take up too much brain space and increase your odds of failing at all of them.

More from Ladders