If you are starting to think about your New Year’s resolutions, you’re already doing something right. Formulating health and other goals for the coming year in advance — rather than waiting until New Year’s Eve — gives you the time to make them clearer, and that alone raises your odds of success.
So before you promise yourself you’re going to lose 20 pounds, spend less time on social media, give up sugar or run a marathon by the end of the coming year, you will probably want to consider the findings of the world's largest study of New Year's resolutions.
It found that how you phrase your resolutions affects your chances of success.
Nearly 1100 people were followed for the year as they pursued their resolutions in 2017. Participants formulated their own resolutions, then they were divided into three different groups, each of which received varying amounts of support throughout the year. One group received no support at all; another got some support; and a third was given a lot of support. Each group was followed-up every month throughout the year.
You might think that those who received the most support were more likely to accomplish their resolutions, but this wasn’t true. Something else mattered more. “…[T]he support given to the participants did not make much of a difference when it came down to how well participants kept their resolutions throughout the year,” researcher Per Carlbring, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Stockholm University, said in a statement. “What surprised us were the results on how to phrase your resolution.”
“Approach goals” were more successful than “avoidance goals” — resolutions focused on avoiding or quitting something.
The highest rate of success, the Stockholm University and Linköping University team found, was seen among those whose resolutions involved developing a new habit or introducing something new in their lives. These “approach goals” were more successful than “avoidance goals” — resolutions focused on avoiding or quitting something. That means making your resolution something you are reasonably sure you can achieve. Resolve to do a half hour of exercise a week. Don't plan on running five miles a week, at least this year.
But will simply rephrasing your resolution guarantee success?
Not always. It depends on what you are resolving to do.
Phrasing resolutions positively is one good strategy, but there are others, too.
Mindfulness-based interventions designed to strengthen self-control achieve better outcomes for those trying to stop smoking or prevent binge and emotional eating than other treatments.
You can set yourself up to succeed by structuring things so you can keep your resolutions without the need for quite so much willpower. Trying to cut back your online and social media use? Put your phone out of easy reach. To get in shape and lose weight, put your gym clothes out the night before. Or simply eat out less often.
Social support always helps, but you can use your phone for support, too. There are diet and apps you can set to help you calm down or keep track of how much you’ve eaten.
The study is published in PLOS ONE.