As the holidays wrap up, Americans enter resolution season, when millions of people make pledges to improve themselves in the new year.
Each year, Forbes magazine conducts a nationwide survey to identify the most popular resolutions. This year, 48 percent of participants said that their resolution is improving their physical fitness; 36 percent responded that their top priority is improving their mental health. Other popular resolutions include improving finances, losing weight, and eating healthier.
Although these are all admirable goals, the real question is how to stick with them. Here are evidence-based tips for achieving those resolutions.
A systematic review published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology demonstrates that it’s not willpower or determination, but instead creating positive habits, that are the real key to achieving long-term goals. The authors identified six studies with more than 2,200 participants that asked whether people with “beneficial habits” were more likely to exhibit self-control and ultimately achieve their goals. The studies cover a wide range of goals – exercise, healthy eating, meditation, and doing homework – and ages ranged from adolescence to adulthood. All six studies demonstrated the importance of creating routines and habits to make progress toward goals.For example, in one study, adults rated their self-control, and then provided information about their sleep patterns, along with exercise and snacking habits. Participants who rated their self-control as high were consistently more likely to wake up and go to bed at the same times each day, were more likely to agree with the statement “exercise is something I do automatically,” and were less likely to feel tempted to break their routines.The authors concluded that people who create routines surrounding behaviors they want to encourage are more likely to follow through and less likely to do something else. The data suggest that habits are more important to achieving goals than sheer determination or “willpower.”
Come up with measurable targets.
Another strategy is to set specific, numeric-based goals, such as walking 10,000 steps a day. That’s because having a measurable goal makes it easier to monitor your progress and tends to improve motivation. A large study of marathon runners illustrates this point. Researchers analyzed data from 10 million runners who set the popular target time of running a four-hour marathon. Significantly more runners in the study finished in three hours and 59 minutes compared to four hours and one minute. Researchers found that’s most likely because knowing you’re on track to achieve a goal helps you to stay motivated, and as people approach reaching a goal, they are more likely to push harder to achieve it.
Along the same lines, set mini-goals along the way.
Motivation is a major component that affects our ability to reach our goals. Research demonstrates that people are more motivated when they first set a goal, but lose steam toward the middle, and motivation resurges as they approach their goal. An evidence-based strategy to avoid this problem is to create interim goals, or landmarks, along the way that help to refresh your motivation. For example, if you want to lose weight, set a goal to lose four pounds each month instead of 20 pounds in total. At the start of each month, you can restart working toward your new goal to generate some fresh motivation.
The take-home message: Resolutions can be a powerful way to make life changes. Following some evidence-based strategies is the best way to ensure you accomplish your goal.
This article was written by The Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research at Cornell University is focused on using research findings to improve health and well-being of people at all stages of life.