Health and Wellness

The key to setting (and sticking to) New Year's resolutions, according to science

@crystalmariesing | Twenty20

Most people give up on their New Year's resolutions after just a week — only about one in five people can maintain a resolution for two years, according to a frequently-cited study.

So what is the difference between those whose resolve barely outlasts their New Year's Day hangover and those who stick to their plans?

Though experts used to think that a lack of willpower was the primary reason people abandoned their resolutions, decades of research suggest it's far more nuanced.

"People who recognize that their willpower will not sustain their behavior change are very clear thinkers, because it won't," Donald Edmondson, associate professor at Columbia University and principal investigator for the National Institute of Health's Science of Behavior Change, tells CNBC Make It.

"Change doesn't come about because people want change so badly. It comes about because they plan it," he says.

In reality, the key to achieving your resolution is setting up the conditions in a way that you know will lead to success. Luckily, science tells the best ways to do that.

Here are research-backed tips to set and keep your resolutions for 2020.

Be specific about your goal and how to achieve it

"In order to be successful at changing behaviors, the first step is almost always setting an intention, and that's what New Year's resolutions are about," says Edmondson.

But you need to be specific and have a plan. It's easy to make a vague resolution, says Edmondson, but if you really want to change your behavior, you need to set detailed, measurable and clearly-planned goals. (You may have heard of the managment concept of SMART goals, which stands for: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound.)

Research suggests that having a plan makes you less prone to procrastination and forgetfulness when you're completing a difficult task, whether it's exercising or finishing a project at work.

Spend a half-hour to an hour setting an intention for the New Year, then pinpoint the steps you're going to take to manifest it, Edmondson says.

Have the right 'why'

Mindset is important when crafting an intention: People are more likely to retain a behavior change when they do it to feel better, rather than to avoid something bad from happening in the future, Edmondson says.

For example, keeping up a detailed planner or calendar might make juggling projects at work that much easier.

Or going to an indoor cycling class because you know it boosts your mood and gives you mental clarity might be more motivating than, say, forcing yourself to train for a race. To that end, researchers are increasingly finding that if you engage in physical activity at an intensity level that feels good and brings you pleasure you'll be more likely to stick to it, Edmondson says.

"Noticing that positive effect of these behaviors can be a really powerful reinforcement," he says.

Don't share your resolutions on social media

While many people will broadcast their resolutions on social media, research has shown that sharing your goals can often be detrimental in the long run.

Expressing your goals to other people can make you feel like you've already done the work to achieve it, says psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen. This is especially true if other people congratulate you or "pat you on the back" just for making a goal.

That said, asking your friends and family to help keep you accountable to your goals, or recruiting them to make this change with you, can be a "very powerful way to scaffold your behavior change," Edmondson says. These sort of social structures reinforce your behaviors and can help bolster you along the way.

Also have a backup plan

Research suggests that to be successful at achieving goals, you should predict the potential obstacles that might stand in your way and generate a plan to overcome them.

For example, if your resolution is to go to yoga class a few times a week, but you tend to oversleep, have a backup plan to stream a workout at home through an app or YouTube video when you don't make it out the door. 

Believe in yourself (seriously)

Ultimately, believing in yourself will get you far. Studies have shown that self-efficacy, or the belief that you can change, is important when you're making a goal, and will make you extra resilient in the face of stress, Edmondson says.

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