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How to Set and Keep New Year’s Resolutions: The Science of Goal Setting and Habit Formation

How to Set and Keep New Year’s Resolutions: The Science of Goal Setting and Habit Formation

Our tendency to use temporal landmarks as motivation for aspirational goals is called the "fresh start effect". But as it’s been said, a New Year's resolution is ‘something that goes in one year and out the other!’ Unfortunately the data support this: only 8% of us maintain them and they’re usually abandoned by the 3rd week of January. 

A recent poll found that the most common New Year's resolutions for 2024 include:

  • Improved fitness (48%)

  • Improved finances (38%)

  • Improved mental health (36%)

  • Lose weight (34%)

  • Improved diet (32%)

Intriguingly, by the 21st of January, 92% of us will have failed at realizing these goals. This isn’t because we’re insincere in our desire for change. We simply lack insight into the neuroscience of goal setting and habit formation.

There are copious myths about goal setting. Unfortunately, Post Its on your fridge don’t work - because your nervous system adapts to your environment - and neither does telling people about your goals in the hopes of triggering accountability pressure. When we do this, we often receive feedback that activates reward systems in the brain which hinders our progress. The accountability myth also fails to recognise the risk of telling someone who doesn’t really believe we can do it, which demotivates us, even if we want to achieve the goal to prove them wrong

So, what’s the secret to identifying and keeping New Year’s resolutions?

The 7 Principles of Identifying and Keeping a New Year's Resolution Based on Neuroscience: 

7 Principles for Setting and Keeping Your New Year's Resolutions

1. Only One New Year’s resolution at a time.

Research shows that as our list of goals expands, the probability of achieving any of them diminishes. List your goals for 2024, and pick 1 that’s most meaningful. This leads us to the second principle…

2. More important than What, is Why.

Why do you want to get healthy? What would starting therapy mean for you? Why deepen your intimacy with your spouse? What would these things mean for you? We lose momentum when we smash into obstacles because we’re too focused on strategy - the HOW - and not enough on our psychology - the WHY. In fact, some research suggests that 80% of change depends on our psychology, while only 20% has to do with strategy. The 20th century philosopher Nietzsche, was right when he said: if we have a WHY we can endure any HOW”

When not changing begins to feel repugnant, and the prospect of change becomes emotionally compelling, then we drop the hammer and act. We break through what neuroscientists call ‘limbic friction’ - the internal resistance we all feel when trying to override rigid neural circuits. 

Below is the the 4 Quadrants Framework to help you identify why your New Year’s resolution matters to you, and what’s at stake if you abandon it. This framework is like your north star, orienting you and pulling you forward when the process becomes cumbersome. The 4 Quadrants apply to anything you want to change in your life: behavior, how you talk to yourself, an addiction and even a belief that no longer serves you:



e.g., The Decision to Continue Watching Netflix Each Night After Work

e.g. The Decision to Walk, Run, or Lift Weights On A Monday, Wednesday and Thursday Night After Work

3. Make it specific by assigning verbs and time frames to the goal.

For example, transform: “I want to get fit,” to “I want to take a brisk walk for 30 minutes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.” Specificity and measurability are key in setting and achieving goals. Why do we keep our goals hazy, broad and vague? Because then we’ll never have to confront the pain of knowing when we’re off course. To succeed, we need to risk this pain by emblazoning our true north in bright mental colors so we know when we stray. 

4. Make it easy and convenient to achieve the goal

Apply the principle of small things often. If you’re a first-timer, don’t try to meditate for 30 minutes a day, or lift weights for an hour. The pain and frustration of this overreaching will make the idea of repetition unbearable, and it won’t last. Start low and slow, and stop before you fatigue. End with a sense of confidence that it’s doable so repetition becomes attractive. Moreover, to make it enjoyable, rather than simply manageable, use ‘habit coupling:’ pair something you don’t like with something you do. Stretch while watching a series, lift weights while listening to a podcast, meditate with music, walk with your dogs. Similarly, remove obstacles. For most of us, the biggest obstacle is our smartphones, or as they’ve been dubbed, ‘weapons of mass distraction.’ Don’t let it hijack your attention. You might need to put more boundaries between you and your smartphone than between you and any person in your life.  


5. Activate your 'procedural memory'

Visualize all the steps involved in starting and finishing the new habit. For example, if you want to go to the gym more regularly,  visualize putting on your trainers, packing your bag, driving to the gym, working out, coming home and having a warm shower. This primes the very same brain circuits needed to actually perform the habit, reducing limbic friction. 

6. Use the principle of random reward

For motivation, we need dopamine.  If you reward yourself every time you hit a milestone, you’ll desensitize to the reward over time, your dopamine will plummet, and you’ll lose momentum. Instead, leverage dopamine by using random rewards. Multiple studies have shown that after every milestone, when participants flip a coin - heads they celebrate, tails they don’t - they sustain their new habit significantly longer than the control group. The key message is to attach reward to the process of pursuit, the journey, and the struggle rather than the reward at the end. Tell yourself that the good part is the effort.

7. Use Habit Bracketing by following the circadian rhythm of attention and motivation

Research indicates that we have the most drive 30 minutes, 3 hours and 11 hours after waking up. Take advantage of this by timing your new habit along one of these energy spikes. 

And now allow us to seemingly contradict everything we’ve said with a final data point:

Achieving your goals won’t actually make you happy. But, the kind of person you become by virtue of working towards a goal, most certainly can.

So once again, attach reward to the idea of growth and progress, not the end result! 

If you're interested in more science-backed advice for a healthier and happier 2024, please watch our Holiday Webinar:



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