Wanting to change yourself and better yourself is a beautiful and inspiring thing, I believe.

And it turns out that’s also how most other people think: 50% of all Americans for example set themselves a New Year’s resolution.

That’s pretty amazing! What’s not so great is that according to the researcher Richard Wiseman, 88% of all those set resolutions from half of America and probably lots of other people in the world fail. That’s 156 million failed resolutions and disappointed minds each and every year.

The sheer numbers of this really made me think. I wanted to understand better why we are so bad at keeping our newly set out resolutions and what we can do to actually make them stick.

Here is the actual science behind setting a New Year’s resolution and more science on how you can actually change yourself for the better:

Your brain can’t handle New Year’s resolutions – here is why

What we need to stick to our New Year’s resolutions is willpower. Your brain cells that operate willpower are located in the prefrontal cortex, which is the area right behind your forehead.

That particular area of the brain is also responsible for staying focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract tasks for example.

Now, when you set a New Year’s resolution, an enormous amount of willpower is required. It’s an amount that your brain simply can’t handle. To put more scientifically, this is what’s happening inside your prefrontal cortex, best described through a Stanford experiment by Prof. Baba Shiv:

A group of undergraduate students were divided into 2 groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember. The other was given a seven-digit number to remember. Then, after a short walk through the hall, they were offered the choice between two snacks: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit. What’s most surprising: The students with 7-digit numbers to remember were twice as likely to pick the slice of chocolate compared to the students with the 2-digits.

The reasoning of why this happens? According to Prof. Shiv, it’s very obvious:

“Those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a “cognitive load”—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert.”

So your pre-frontal cortex that handles willpower is like a muscle, that needs to be trained, as Tony Schwartz always mentions . If you decide to train that muscle at the start of the new year with a resolution to quit smoking, start going to the gym, or lose lots of weight, that’s the equivalent of a 300 pound barbell you want to lift without any previous training.

It’s no surprise that your brain can’t do the heavy lifting.

Resolutions vs. habits – why vague aspirations don’t work

“What a mistake – the whole idea around New Year’s resolutions. People aren’t picking specific behaviors, they’re picking abstractions,” says BJ Fogg from Stanford University.

The problem is clear: any abstract goal you have that is not tied to a specific behavior is nearly impossible for your brain to focus on. Making it “instinctual,” which is the crucial aspect that will help you achieve any new habit, is missing in 90% of all New Year’s resolutions, which makes them so likely to fail.

Instead, the key is to make any goal a habit first. And most importantly, make it a tiny one. Here is a list of examples of how this translates to some of the 4 most common new year’s resolutions:

  • Resolution: Quit smoking vs. Habit: Stop smoking that 1 cigarette you have every morning after breakfast
  • Resolution: Eat healthy food vs. Habit: Start substituting that 1 daily morning pastry for a banana
  • Resolution: Lose weight vs. Habit: Every evening after work, go for a 2-3 minute run or walk around the block.
  • Resolution: Manage stress vs. Habit: Meditate for 2-3 minutes every morning after you wake up.

By immediately breaking down each resolution and seeing what the smallest habit could be, your chances of succeeding will be 50% higher. There is nothing more. You make it so easy and simple for yourself to create that habit that there is almost no way you can fail with it.

Ok, but now enough of why the dark and gloomy reasons of new year’s resolutions don’t work. What can we really do to make them work?

The 4 steps to make New Year’s resolution stick 

So if you’ve set yourself a few big new changes, here are the most important things to consider to actually change your behavior for a better you:

1. Pick only one resolution 

As Stanford’s Prof. Shiv explained with her “cognitive overload” experiment, sticking to more than 1 New Year’s resolution is near impossible for your brain to handle. Instead, analyze everything you’ve thought about to change and pick the one thing that’s most important for you.

Then, let go of everything else, otherwise you’ll be picking the chocolate cake for every situation, instead of the choice that you set out to make.

2. Take baby steps – make it a tiny habit

Now that you’ve picked one resolution, make sure to break down as far as you can, to the simplest task possible. If your resolution is “going to the gym”, turn it into the tiniest habit possible that you can perform in under 60 seconds.

BJ Fogg from Stanford created a great application exactly for this, called TinyHabits. It’s an awesome way to get started with any new year’s resolution you have in mind:


3. Hold yourself accountable for what you want to change: Tell others or write it down

In a study from 2007 performed by researcher Evans, they found a striking correlation between increased social support and lowering blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol. What does that have to do with New Year’s resolutions?

Well, it has proven as striking evidence that the people around you can have a significant impact on your behavior. So if you tell some of your friends and family about the new tiny habit you’ve created, you are much more likely to stick to it.

Another hint here is that writing it down not only makes you more likely to succeed with your new habit and on top of that, increases your overall happiness.

4. Focus on the carrot, not the stick – positive feedback and rewards increase your chance of success

A powerful study from the University of Chicago outlines how clearly positive feedback on any of your new habits will increase the likelihood of your success with your new habits and resolutions.

Hand in hand with this goes the fact that rewarding yourself for advances with your habits with things that make you feel great are a sure fire way to increase your success rate, according to Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute.

So treating yourself to an unhealthy snack after a few days of successful diet habits changes is more than appropriate if you really want to make it through the other end.

Eric Barker also has a terrific list of more things you can do to make sure your new resolutions will end well.

Quick last fact: Strong willpower is not a character trait 

One very comforting and important last fact is that having strong willpower is not something we’re born with, as opposed to popular opinion.

“Research suggests that willpower itself is inherently limited, and that our January promises fail in large part because the brain wasn’t built for success.”

So just like your bicep has to be trained in order to grow stronger, so does the prefrontal cortex in your brain. The key is to make sure not to start lifting too heavy, as then we’re bound to drop everything on the floor with our new year’s resolutions.

With all this info, the only thing that’s left for me to ask: Do you have any New Year’s resolutions? How are you planning on approaching them? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments. 

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Written by Leo Widrich

Co-founder at Buffer.

  • I have regular “discipline” goals that have to do with personal growth & health. But this year, I want to try something new for a span of 30 days, and then something for another 30 days. The idea is based on this TED talk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnfBXjWm7hc&feature=player_embedded

    This month: No food/drink with added sugar.

    • LeoWid

      Hi Joey, thanks a bunch for the heads up on the Ted talk, that looks super interesting and I remember Noah Kagan doing a similar challenge a few weeks ago.

      All the best with this month’s challenge! 🙂

    • Arnold Howard

      Joey, read “Sugar Blues,” by William Dufty. I gave up processed sugar because of that book.

  • Enjoyed this one. Should help more people achieve their goals.

    • LeoWid

      glad it did and yes, I hope we can make that happen for more people! 🙂

  • Ariana

    Wow! An inspiring piece referencing rich outside sources also worth viewing. Really enjoyed reading this.

    • LeoWid

      Hi Ariana, so glad you enjoyed reading this one!

  • I guess the stays depend on what you’re looking at. Clinical psychologist John Norcross just announced on on NPR last Friday that 40 to 46 percent of those setting New Year’s resolution are successful after six months. That sounds pretty good to me. Great tips on being one of those successful ones no matter what the percentages are.

    • LeoWid

      Hi Brian, thanks a lot for the heads up on this, I hadn’t heard about that research before, will definitely read up on that.

      And I agree, regardless of the numbers, I hope this makes it easier for new resolutions to stick! 🙂

  • Thank you Leo – small steps, small bets (per peter sims etc.). We are so focused, as a culture & society, on the home runs that we undervalue the singles and doubles….

    • LeoWid

      Hi Deb, love this reference of hitting more singles and doubles, I completely agree, that’s what will give you continuous progress and paradoxically also increase your chance of hitting those home runs! 🙂

  • Paul Gallimore

    I lost quit a bit of weight last year. My resolution this time around is to hold the line, as it were.

    I see from your posting that Prof. Wiseman gets a mention. He’s pretty much omnipresent in blogs these days. I recently wrote and report for the dating market and I too quoted him.

    • LeoWid

      Hi Paul, all the best with holding the line this year, it seems, that as it has worked last year, you’ll be able to pull it off again easily! 🙂

  • Undoubtedly a great article for people with a laundry list of resolutions, only to realize at the end that they didn’t accomplish half, or did so poorly.

    I don’t have a habit of making resolutions, nor do I intend to worry about having one. Being disciplined with whatever you want to do great is way more important than writing down vague ideal results, IMO. Again, very informative article!

    • LeoWid

      Hi Richard, glad you liked it! 🙂

  • BJ Fogg’s insights sound great. Will have to try it to shape my 2013 resolutions – http://nprasanna.com/2013/01/my-new-years-resolution-for-2013/

    • LeoWid

      Hi Prasanna, definitely, I hope it’ll help! 🙂

  • Leo, let me just say that your blog posts are among my favourites: interesting and, even more important, really substantial! Keep up the good work!

    • LeoWid

      Hi Anders, wow, thanks so much for the kind words, really glad the posts are interesting! 🙂

  • I make sure my resolutions are SMART – simple, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. This is the only way a goal turns into success.

    • LeoWid

      Hi Shannon, what a great definition and yes, I agree 100%! 🙂

  • Rohan Golwalkar

    I agree with the points you’ve made Leo and tiny changes are the key.
    I read on Zen Habits about “trigger” : helped one of my friend identify the trigger for his smoking and he has now completely quit smoking.
    so yes : Tiny Steps+Trigger+replacement would sum it up.
    Another great article : Happy New year

    • LeoWid

      Hi Rohan, thanks a lot for chipping in here, do you have a link to the Zen Habits post at all? Very intrigued to read more.

  • Accountability and Routine are what the women of Your Turn have discovered is the KEY to achieving the goals and resolutions they set. Our list certainly has some similarities to yours, check it out at http://yourturnwomen.wordpress.com/2012/12/30/book-sampling-got-goals/
    Happy New Year!

  • Dianne

    I really enjoyed this and it was a great reminder for me! My NY resolutions this year were definitely in the “vague” category…going to change them now and make them habits I want to form instead. Thank you!

  • Rudy

    You know I do like some of the tips you gave for keeping the resolution. Writing your goal down and telling people about it is really great for me because I always feel accountable when other people know if I give up and it can sometimes embarrass me to keep trying. I found this picture today with a form on the end for me to write my goal down and put it up. You guys should check it out! ( http://www.melaleucajournal.com/happy-new-year-resolutions/ ) I think this might be the year I accomplish my goals! Of course even if I don’t I at least made an effort to get closer to it!

  • Pat Zalewski

    Great article. I just finished the Tiny Habits http://tinyhabits.com/ program over the holidays and had the results I wanted. Understanding the science of habits really helps make the process work.

    • Preet

      In my case, I don’t have a habit of making resolutions, nor do I intend to worry
      about having one. Being disciplined with whatever you want to do great
      is way more important than writing down vague ideal results .

  • Amen! Such wisdom you share — force of will can NEVER trump the power of good habits.. and kudos to you for passing along BJ Fogg’s awesome “Tiny Habits” resource — now it’s time to get back into those healthy habits as those pesky holidays were a challenge — here’s a summary of one person’s experience with 3 Tiny Habits. http://rogiercommunications.com/2012/10/me-my-tiny-habits-how-i-dedicated-one-week-to-practice-forming-new-routines/

  • Anonymous

    These tips really helped me. I have a bad habit of not brushing my teeth and I was trying to go straight to 2 minutes twice a day everyday instead of right after getting dressed in the morning for a minute 6 days a week. Thanks for these tips!

  • Jessica

    mine is too cut all carbonated beverages and to read the serving size on every thing and follow it. More specific than lose weight, right?

  • Matt

    Thank you for this insight, it sounds like multiple resolutions a year will work if you space them out and start the next one after the new habit is formed (66 days according to and article in the European Journal of Psychology). Using SMART goals to set resolutions will help in setting the specific goals and giving something measurable to hold yourself accountable. http://www.wristreminder.com/Articles.asp?ID=251
    Writing things down as you suggest makes things real and not just an idea, this helps to make us accountable to ourselves. One of my problems is remembering to “change my ways”, I developed some products to help me remember my goals and after reading this article I also see how the visual reminder makes me accountable to myself.

  • Donna Beker

    Another reason that they may have grabbed the chocolate cake is that, the brain can only use glucose, so the quick surge that the cake provided enabled them to remember their 7 digit number more easily and for a longer time.

  • Leo, very interesting and thought provoking. I was not overloaded at all (just kidding of course). These are some life changing concepts, so thanks.

  • Hey Leo,

    This is great information. It wasn’t until I made my daily habits and goals super easy that I actually started getting things done. The thought of doing something can be very daunting but when that something is broken down into small pieces it makes it much easier.

  • Azi

    Thanks a lot…..if one thing that has bitched (sorry) me for years and years is my habit of smoking….yea I quit it for thousands (yes indeed) times and you know what I’m still smoking….every single day you think of it, leaving it, not leaving it, smoking, fearing, cursing it and you and all kinds of stupid stuff attached with this habit…..don’t know what I can get from this writings of yours….but may be I’ve to think about it more to get a grasp of it or it may fall into loads of other techniques I read, heard etc. about how to quit smoking…..anyhow nice words….thanks a lot

  • Azi

    You can imagine how deeply impressed I’m with what you have said that I’m posting again within a minute or so….yea I can imagine very well that I have already put immense pressure and stress on my brain for doing something and feeling bad about it at the same time…it does not help at all……you can not even relax …damn….when you are not smoking you can not relax and keep thinking about doing it…and if you do…you again can not relax because you curse yourself for doing so or breaking the resolution…..may be I will start skipping few puffs from each cigarette….change the brand….lets see

  • Great Article Leo nice steps example over here i had started planing for new year resolution from today i was searching for great idea and my research end with your article nice info will try on this new year and please if you have time you should write more about it.

  • Nice and very helpful article i follow some steps given by you and i hope it will helpful with me thanks for sharing. http://recruitmentmania.com/

  • I wish I had read this before posting my own Hahaha! Definitely going to try BJ Foggs’ baby steps. Heard about it, but never did it!