How to Make New Year’s Resolutions That Actually Work

Vanessa Raymond Fact Checked
Notebook calendar open to January
© Melissa Ross / Stocksy United

When you think about New Year's, what do you get excited about? The ball dropping? The Rose Bowl? The midnight kiss? 

For many people, the enthusiasm of the new year fizzles when it comes to resolution-making. 

That’s because more often than not, New Year’s resolutions are about dropping some pounds, dropping fewer dollars, dropping certain utterances from your vocabulary and dropping pretty much everything else that makes the daily slog tolerable. And while these un-fun-sounding adult responsibilities are usually intended to improve you in some way, chances are you’ll renege on them anyway.

Even the word itself — resolution — does not inspire excitement.

There has to be a better way.

How most people make New Year’s resolutions

Say after work every day, you come home, plop on the couch and binge watch Netflix until you fall asleep. You’ll scarf down dinner, of course, and scroll through Instagram for some of that time but otherwise it’s all about marathoning Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Narcos: Mexico. 

No judgment. There’s something about this routine that works for you. 

But there’s also something about the routine that’s not working. Let’s face it: This social media-from-the-sofa thing has not exactly brought meaning to your life. There’s the stubborn fact that you are spending almost all your waking hours sedentary. And your screen time, well, let’s not even go there. 

So you make a resolution that as of the new year, you will head to the gym after work, instead of the couch. You figure you’ll improve your heart health, screen time and step numbers all at once.

Sounds like the New Year’s resolution trifecta, right?

“Wrong,” says Kevin King, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington. “That’s a classic New Year’s resolution and, like most of them, it’s likely to fail.”

Why our New Year’s resolutions usually fail

King says that there’s one thing in common that almost everyone gets wrong when they make New Year’s resolutions.

“We think about the benefits of changing and the costs of not changing,” says King. “But we don’t consider the flip side: the costs of changing and the benefits of not changing.”

What’s that mean for your resolution to trade some of your couch-surfing time for gym time? You probably haven’t assessed the costs of your resolution — costs like annoying rush-hour traffic to get to the gym in the first place, less Netflix and so on. 

And you probably also haven’t considered the benefits of keeping your old habits. Couch time is decompression time: no schedule, no expectations, no agenda. 

You’ll be trading the one habit in your day that you actually enjoy for … what again? Pie in the sky? You’ve got some pie right here in the refrigerator, thankyouverymuch. 

It’s only when you get your feet on the ground and start to act on your resolution that these obstacles appear, says King.

Don’t underestimate them. You might not want to own up to them but they’re definitely there and can trip you up. 

How you should make New Year’s resolutions instead

Instead of continuing this make-then-break New Year’s resolution cycle, King offers up strategies that will make you more likely to succeed.

1. Create a grid instead of a list

Make a four-section grid that includes the costs and benefits of changing and the costs and benefits of not changing your habits.

“Filling out a grid will give you a fuller picture of what you’re trying to accomplish. Not only what you hope to gain, but what you will lose in the process,” says King.

2. Make realistic goals

Have you ever in your life gone to the gym three days in a row? And yet your plan as of January 1 is to go to the gym every day of the week because, as you sit here on the couch thinking about it, it seems like a good idea?

Don’t make goals that are too hard to reach and also don’t try for too many goals at one time. Many people who make unrealistic plans to change have those plans fall apart the first time they encounter real-life stumbling blocks.

“Often the first failure precipitates more failures and then the plan to change gets abandoned completely,” says King. “It would be better to make a resolution to put your gym clothes in the car and drive to the gym once a week, period. That, at least, gives you the opportunity to succeed and feel good about it.”

Success builds upon success. Setting small, achievable goals along the way gives you a sense of accomplishment that will help propel you to the next achievable milestone. And repeat.

3. Be specific in your plan

“People are more successful at making changes when they have a detailed and specific plan,” says King.

If you plan to go to the gym’s high-intensity interval training (HIIT) class after work every Tuesday and Thursday, then eventually it becomes a habit that you go through almost like brushing your teeth or going to work. You show up at the gym on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons just like you show up at work on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.

“Having a plan reduces the opportunity for somebody to make a ‘hot’ decision — a decision that is in the moment and possibly emotional — because those decisions are a lot easier to get wrong,” says King.

4. Account for what you're losing

By assessing the costs of your resolution when you fill out your four-section grid, you can think of ways to compensate for those losses ahead of time.

Here’s how it works. If that HIIT class won’t fulfill your need to zone out after work, maybe the treadmill will still provide the opportunity to stare at a screen while getting some exercise, too.

“Think about how to integrate what you’re losing into your behavior change — by either making it a complement to your behavior change or incorporating it into the behavior change itself,” says King.

5. Build in incentives and rewards

If there’s really no way to incorporate what you’re losing (e.g. screen time) into what you want to accomplish (e.g. fitness) — the treadmill TV is not Netflix, after all — then consider allowing yourself screen time as a reward for meeting goals along the way.

Building a reward into your plan can help offset your losses as well as motivate you for those times when your resolve flags.

Think of something you’d like but haven’t allowed yourself — whether it’s impractical but super-fun shoes, a day-long Netflix binge or a nap.

After you’ve completed a certain number of goals, allow yourself to enjoy your reward — guilt-free — because you earned it.

The proportion of effort to reward is up to you. Half an hour at the gym can earn you half an hour chilling in front of the TV, or can count as a certain amount of money toward your purchase of those shoes.

"For some people, just tracking their rewarding or positive behaviors can be self-reinforcing. They can say to themselves, ‘Oh look. I did this and achieved that,’” says King.

Small steps to success

It’s common to have a goal for yourself or a vision of a behavioral ideal and to simultaneously experience difficulty engaging in that behavior, says King.

The path forward that is least likely to succeed is to expect that your willpower will suddenly strengthen come January 1.

Instead, have a plan in place that takes into account the push-pull between your desire and your real life — a plan that anticipates your losses and includes ways to offset them.

And King reminds us to remember that small progress is still progress and should be counted as such.

“There’s a cultural notion of binary success or failure in behavior change, but that’s not how most behavior change works,” says King. “Even for people who do end up making some permanent behavior change, it’s often accomplished in fits and starts.”