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4 Scientifically Proven Strategies to Achieve Your New Year’s Resolution

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

✎ Written by: Dubravka Rebic

A clean slate. That is what January 1st signifies. And for many, the beginning of a New Year offers a fresh start and an opportunity to review goals, reevaluate priorities, get rid of bad habits, and establish new routines.

In fact, every year, millions of people make New Year's resolutions, hoping to spark positive change. However, once the glow of a fresh new year begins to wear off, only around 12% of the people who made these resolutions actually manage to stay on track.

So, what can you do to secure your spot in the group that managed not to veer off course? According to psychological research, here’s what you need to do to stay on track in 2022:

1. Reframe Your Resolution

A team of researchers analyzed resolutions made by 1066 people and found that New Year's resolutions referred to as approach-oriented goals, which are goals with positive outcomes, had a higher success rate than avoidance goals. In other words, it's more likely that you'll keep up with your resolution if you aim to create a new habit than if you want to break an existing one.

After a one-year follow-up, the study showed that those with approach-oriented goals (59%) were more successful than those with avoidance-oriented goals (47%).

So, if your goal is to stop eating sweets, you’ll be more likely to succeed in doing so if you frame the goal as something such as, “I will aim to eat fruit several times a day when I’m craving something sweet,” instead.

By doing so, you're setting an approach-oriented goal, which will likely help you succeed in staying on track with your resolution and replace the habit you’d like to break with a healthier one!

2. Unleash Your Reticular Activating System

Resolutions are more challenging to keep if they involve unrealistic or vague goals. In fact, over 1,000 studies have shown that setting specific goals is linked to increased task performance, persistence, and motivation, compared to setting vague goals.

The reason behind this is that when you precisely define your goals, you activate a part of your brain that plays an important role in your ability to stay on track. This part of your brain, known as the Reticular Activating System (RAS), identifies information from your environment that is valuable to you, brings it to your attention, and filters out unimportant stimuli.

For example, let's say you’d like to eat healthier food in order to increase your energy. Therefore, if you should one day find yourself flipping through the pages of a magazine, your RAS can unconsciously help you spot a relevant article or recipe that will help you work toward your goal.

That’s because your RAS gravitates your focus toward things that are currently on your mind and helps bring relevant information to your attention. So if you set a clear goal, you'll probably start seeing different avenues in your environment that will steer you toward success. This brings us to the next step:

3. Set a SMART Goal

In order to make your goal as clear and specific as possible, try using the SMART approach.

The SMART approach refers to goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based. For example, applying the SMART approach to a New Year's resolution for exercising regularly would look like this:

  • Specific: It's not enough to say you will exercise more. It would be best if you were specific. For instance, “I will do strength training three times a week for the next eight weeks.”

  • Measurable: Now that you've set a specific goal, you’ll need a way to measure your progress as you move toward a larger goal. For example, "I will measure my body composition once a week."

  • Attainable: Can you achieve this goal? Setting a goal of working out six times a week for one hour when you haven't exercised in years is unrealistic. Perhaps doing two or three 30-minute workouts a week would be a more attainable goal. Start small and gradually work your way up.

  • Relevant: How is your resolution relevant to your life? Your answer may be something related to a serious health risk, like, "Type 2 diabetes runs in my family. Regular strength training will reduce my risks of developing this disease." It could also be something not as severe, but also important, like, “I work a 9-5 desk job and I want to incorporate more movement into my day.”

  • Time-based: Give yourself a time frame for your goal. Do you aim to build strength over three months? A year? Perhaps your goal is even to build a permanent habit?

Make use of your RAS (mentioned in Step 2) by reviewing your goal twice a day, for example, when you wake up and when you're going to bed. This way, you're “checking in” with your RAS system, programming it to send you clues when you come across relevant information related to your goal.

Pro Tips:

There are underlying neurochemical changes that cause your motivation to keep burning and they are closely correlated with the way you define your goals.

In order to make your New Year's resolutions stick, try making them:

1) Tricky yet achievable: Setting up New Year's resolutions may help boost your Systolic Blood Pressure (SBP), preparing you to reach your goals. SBP rises when your body is getting ready to take on some physical or mental activity that requires cognitive or physical investment. It's how your body prepares for action.

If your goal is tricky yet achievable, your SBP spikes, thereby increasing your enthusiasm to act. However, too challenging or almost impossible goals are linked to low systolic thrust and do not provide the spike that makes you determined.

2) Oriented in the near future: The part of your brain that mediates decision-making, your Medial Prefrontal Cortex (MPFC), allows you to think about what you need to do right now to achieve your goals.

If the goal seems too future-oriented, your MPFC activation lowers significantly, which is why you may lose interest in sticking to your resolutions or lose sight of what might be the best way to achieve them if they’re set too far in the future.

That’s not to say you cannot set grand goals that you’d like to achieve in the future – just try breaking that goal down into smaller, near future goals. That way, you can motivate yourself (and your brain) to begin taking small steps toward accomplishment without feeling overwhelmed.

4. Implement Immediate Rewards

While an alluring end-goal in the distant future might be motivating at first, it may become more difficult to conceptualize over time. But alas, there’s still hope! Scientific research shows that you can ease the process and stay on track by introducing immediate rewards.

In this study, researchers followed 200 New Year's resolvers in order to see how many of them would manage to keep up with their resolutions. One week into the new year, 77% of the participants had maintained their resolutions; the number decreased to 55% after one month, 43% after three months, 40% after six months, and 19% at the two-year follow-up.

The study showed that participants who reported more consistent use of self-reward achieved greater success rates.

When trying to keep up with your New Year's resolutions, try making the process as fun and rewarding as you can, especially at the beginning, in order to keep motivation high. For example, if your goal is to become more active, but you don't like running, consider enlisting a running companion or trying a dance class instead. Choosing a fun workout provides an immediate reward and enjoyment and ultimately increases your chances of repeating the process and staying committed to your goals.

Or you can reward yourself after each workout session by drinking a glass of your favorite juice or watching an episode of your favorite TV series.

By making the new behavior enjoyable, you’re more likely to make it stick. But even if you do relapse, be kind and patient with yourself. Any journey worth pursuing will include a few bumps along the way.

The key to success is not never making mistakes; it’s not allowing these setbacks to undermine your self-confidence. Just acknowledge them, try to discern why you slipped, and immediately get back on track again. You got this!

Multiple Myndlift users report monthly about changes in their behavior and lifestyle. Get matched with a Myndlift Provider, either by finding one in your area or by enrolling in our Total Remote program.


About the author:

Dubravka Rebic puts a lot of time and energy into researching and writing in order to help create awareness and positive change in the mental health space. From poring over scientific studies to reading entire books in order to write a single content piece, she puts in the hard work to ensure her content is of the highest quality and provides maximum value.


Reference list:

Oscarsson M, Carlbring P, Andersson G, Rozental A. A large-scale experiment on New Year's resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PLoS One. 2020 Dec 9;15(12):e0234097. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0234097. PMID: 33296385; PMCID: PMC7725288.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57(9), 705–717.

Arguinchona JH, Tadi P. Neuroanatomy, Reticular Activating System. [Updated 2022 Jul 25]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from:

Richter, Michael & Gendolla, Guido & Wright, Rex. (2016). Three decades of research on motivational intensity theory: What we have learned about effort and what we still don't know. 10.1016/bs.adms.2016.02.001.

Matsumoto, Kenji & Tanaka, Keiji. (2004). The role of medial prefrontal cortex in achieving goals. Current opinion in neurobiology. 14. 178-85. 10.1016/j.conb.2004.03.005.

Norcross JC, Vangarelli DJ. The resolution solution: longitudinal examination of New Year's change attempts. J Subst Abuse. 1988-1989;1(2):127-34. doi: 10.1016/s0899-3289(88)80016-6. PMID: 2980864.


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