The key to making your New Year’s Resolutions stick

How to be part of the just 8% that succeed

It’s the time of year that many people look to set resolutions and/or goals for the new year. Especially with so many unexpected events and disruptions to plans in 2020 having fresh, clear 2021 resolutions is a great way to kick off the year.

A lot of people set New Year’s Resolutions with great intentions and may stick with them for a few weeks or months but how many people on average stick with the resolutions or goals throughout the year? One study showed only about 8% stick to them over the course of the year successfully and on average 80% usually fail by February.

These are 5 of the most popular New Year Resolutions:

  1. Exercise more
  2. Lose weight
  3. Get organized
  4. Save more money
  5. Quit smoking

There are a couple of main reasons that people fail to meet their resolutions. One is that the nature of resolutions is that they are general aspirations people have about improving something in their life. The problem is, by definition they aren’t specific and lack accountability on how to achieve the resolution and by when.

Many people also will make verbal resolutions or even goals but fail to write them down. There are many benefits to writing down your goals vs. just thinking them or saying them out loud. Several studies have shown that by simply writing down your goals you are 20 to 40%+ more like to achieve them.

Turning your resolutions into goals dramatically increases the chances you will achieve them. Then turning your goals into implementation intentions makes it even more likely you can successfully achieve your resolutions and goals for the year.

What’s the difference between a resolution, a goal, and an implementation intention?

  • The term resolution is used in many ways but we’ll define it here as an overarching theme, aspiration, or implied direction you want to take with your life going forward. It’s a decision to do or not do something to improve an aspect of your life (health, relationships, career, money, skill, etc) such as “Exercise more” or “Stop smoking”.
  • A goal is a future desired result with a commitment to achieve it. Goals bring a level of specificity on what you plan to achieve typically with a timeframe attached. Goals represent the decisions we make and the commitments we take to reach attainment, break some bad habits, adopt useful habits, or achieve more in different areas of life.
  • An implementation Intention is a specific way of making the goal even more achievable by defining how you get there through simple, typically daily habits.

More about goals and implementation intentions and how they work together below.

Goals

By turning your broad resolutions into specific goals, you create a more accountable commitment to achieve it. This takes your resolution from being a general direction or vague theme you want your life to take to a more specific target you can strive to reach. Without a specific goal, it’s hard to know where you are headed going into the new year.

With a specific target, you can then define the simple steps needed to make it happen (so you aren’t one of the 80–90% who fail each year!). So having a goal allows you to then easily create a plan to get there.

Being clear on your goals for the year can also shape how you perceive your days and hours and being more deliberate about how you spend your time. Goals add purpose. Live life by design not by default.

In the words of Pablo Picasso: Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.”

While having vague resolutions is better than not setting any aspirations for the new year, without setting specific goals you lack the specificity to know what you are really trying to achieve. A resolution of simply “lose weight” isn’t clear enough to give you something to be accountable to. For example, does that mean you want to lose 2 pounds or 20?

Creating a goal would include a specific target weight by a certain date that you can create a plan for. For example, if you weigh 150 lbs today and you wanted to lose 10 pounds, you could have a goal of “Weigh 140 pounds by July 1st”. This does a couple of things:

1 — it avoids ambiguity and gives your brain a specific target to work towards

2 — it gives a date upon which you can measure your success and track progress

3 — it allows you to develop a daily plan to get there

4 — creating the daily plan allows you to make sure your goal is realistic and achievable.

For example, if you weigh 150 pounds and set a goal for weighing 140 pounds by January 31st, while it’s possible to lose 10 pounds in a month, it’s not a healthy or sustainable approach to lose 10 pounds in 30 days. By setting a target weight and date such as July 1st, you can make sure it’s a reasonable timeframe. This would mean losing on average of just under 1.7 pounds/month for 6 months which is doable and considered a healthy amount to lose based upon adjusting your diet and adding more exercise.

With a specific target and a realistic date for your goal, the quick math shows that 1.7 pounds/month is .4 pounds/week or about 240 calories/day, which is very feasible with the right habits.

Implementation Intentions

Once you have a clear goal, the next steps is to define the daily habits needed to get you there. By breaking down the goal into small daily habits, the goal becomes more workable while also being easier to hold yourself accountable to. NY Times Bestselling author, James Clear calls these “atomic habits” in his great book of the same name. Clear defines an atomic habit as “a regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do but is also the source of incredible power; a component of the system of compound growth.”

So far we’ve gone from a vague resolution of “Lose weight” to a specific goal of “Weigh 140 pounds by July 1st” which means a daily calorie deficit target of only 240 calories. The next step is to define and commit to the daily atomic habits to meet the 240 calorie deficit plan.

This is where using Implementation Intentions come in. Your specific goal defines what you want to accomplish by when and implementation intentions describe how you plan to get there. James Clear describes implementation intentions as “a plan you make beforehand about when and where to act — how you intend to implement a particular habit.”

When setting implementation intentions for your goals, think about two types — approach goals or avoidance goals. Approach goals are those with positive outcomes that you work towards such as “Exercise every morning at 7 am”.

Avoidance goals are those with negative outcomes that you want to avoid (like breaking a bad habit) such as “Quit smoking by April 1st”. Psychologists have found that creating approach goals, or positively re-framing avoidance goals, is more effective but it’s Ok to have a combination of both. Depending on the type of goal, there’s a slightly different way of defining your implementation intention.

For your Approach Goals where you want to build a new habit or achieve a positive outcome, the “formula” for an Implementation Intention is…

“I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] at [LOCATION]”

  • For example, “I will read for 30 mins each morning at 7 am on my patio”
  • Or “I will go for a run outside every day at 5:30 pm”

For Avoidance Goals where you want to end a bad habit or avoid a negative outcome, the “formula” for an Implementation Intention is…

“When [EVENT or FEELING] occurs, I will [BEHAVIOR]”

  • For example, “When I feel a craving for soda, I will grab water instead and take a short walk”
  • Or “When my co-worker says something that irritates me, I will pause and breathe before responding”

In the first example, it’s a feeling (craving for sugar rush from soda) that triggers your implementation intention. In the second example, it’s an external trigger from someone that does. In both cases, it’s taking consistent action each day that matters.

To bring this all together, let’s take one of the most popular (and vague) resolutions of “Lose weight” and apply the concept of implementation intentions to it.

After creating the specific goal of “Weigh 140 pounds by July 1st” two implementation intentions could “Drink one less soda every day” and another one could be “Walk for 20 mins/day”.

A typical can of soda is 140 calories and a 20 min brisk walk burns about 100 calories. So those two simple “atomic habits” get you to the 240 calories/day needed. Both are easy to measure and realistic goals. Walking daily is an Approach goal and cutting back or stopping sugary drinks is an Avoidance goal.

Typical New Year's Resolution of “Lose Weight” becomes:

Goal: Weigh 140 pounds by July 1st

Implementation Intentions: To get there, I commit to:

  1. Walk 20 mins every evening after work
  2. When I feel like having a soda, I will grab water instead

Now you have a specific, simple, daily plan to allow you to meet your goal.

Summary

One study showed that by defining implementation intentions for your goals, people were twice as likely to succeed in meeting them.

It’s that simple and you can apply this approach to all your resolutions for 2021.

To summarize:

  1. Turn vague resolutions into specific goals by defining what you plan to achieve and by when
  2. Create implementation intentions for each goal that defines how you get there through simple daily habits

A few other tips on making your Resolutions and Goals for 2020 stick:

  • Writing them down (on paper or keep on your phone/computer) also increases your chances of success
  • Revisit your goals often (monthly or weekly basis) to see confirm progress
  • Set a recurring reminder or 15 min meeting (with yourself) every week on your calendar to review progress and make adjustments to your plan as needed
  • Consider defining a few goals and implementation intentions for different aspects of your life. For example, you can have goals around your health, finances, career, relationship, learning a new skill, or dropping a bad habit.
  • Avoid going overboard because if you have 15 goals with Implementation Intentions, it could become overwhelming and difficult to stay accountable to your plan.
  • Share your goals with a friend. By letting others know your goals, you will often increase your feeling of accountability to achieving your plan.

Setting Goals and Implementation Intentions is a great way to start off the year with a plan to make the most out of 2021 and take yourself to the next level. Good luck!

Fred Brown, Founder of Ignite Mindshift Impact