How to Successfully Stick to Your New Year’s Resolution—Yes, Really!

January 2, 2021 Updated: January 3, 2021

More than half of Americans, reportedly, make New Year’s resolutions. And 88 percent of those resolutions end in failure, according to a study by British psychologist Richard Wiseman.

There is a reason for this fail rate, and once we understand it, we’ll be able to keep our resolutions long enough to make them stick.

The bottom line is that our brains cannot handle New Year’s resolutions when we rely too much on willpower.

The human brain is divided up into sections—each one handling different aspects of brain function. The prefrontal cortex (the part located at the front, behind your forehead) is assigned the tasks of staying focused, handling short-term memory, solving abstract tasks, and using willpower.

Here’s the problem: Part of your brain cannot handle all of those things at the same time. It requires a huge amount of focus and willpower to change a learned behavior overnight, which is what a New Year’s resolution demands.

Bad habits are hard to break—and they’re impossible to break if we try to break them all at once. The focus and willpower required are just too much for the human brain. It simply cannot deliver.

The human prefrontal cortex is like a muscle. It has to be trained. If you joined a local gym, you would never dream of starting out lifting a 300-pound barbell on your first session. You’d start with a 2-pound weight for a two-minute session, working up slowly to heavier weights and longer periods of endurance.

Trying to keep a New Year’s resolution to quit smoking or lose a bunch of weight based solely on willpower is expecting your prefrontal cortex to pick up the equivalent of a 300-pound barbell on the first attempt—and to keep doing it for hours on end. It’s just not possible.

Typically, New Year’s resolutions go something like this: I am going to lose 20 pounds; I’m going to get out of debt, stop smoking, get organized, give up sugar, or run two miles a day. Does anything there sound at all familiar? Those are abstract goals that your brain cannot handle? They are too vague.

Here’s the secret for how to make your New Year’s resolution stick: Make the resolution a habit first. And break it down to a tiny habit to start.

Strong willpower isn’t a character trait, in my opinion. Accept it. And don’t make the mistake of dumping the idea of making a New Year’s resolution. Just don’t depend on willpower.

Instead, depend on these four steps to make your New Year’s resolution stick:

Step No. 1

Pick only one resolution. You are more likely to succeed with only one. Accept it? Analyze everything you’ve thought about changing and pick the one thing that’s most important to you.

Step No. 2

Take baby steps. Make the steps tiny, even ridiculously so. A good tiny behavior is quick and easy to do. Think: Walk for three minutes; do two pushups; floss one tooth. Any of those actions may sound useless, but this is the way to get started. Your brain will thank you by suggesting in due time that you increase that to a four-minute walk or that you floss two teeth.

Step No. 3

Become accountable. Write down what you want to change. That makes you more likely to succeed with your new habit. Tell others. Social support is beneficial. So is accountability.

Step No. 4

Give yourself positive feedback. Or, seek that from your accountability group. Reward yourself with things that make you feel great. Positive feedback will increase your success rate and strengthen your desire to keep going by taking on another baby step—and another, and another, all the way to permanent and glorious change!

Happy New Year, everyone!

Mary Hunt is the founder of EverydayCheapskate.com, a frugal living blog and the author of the book “DebtProof Living.” Mary invites you to visit her at her website, where this column is archived complete with links and resources for all recommended products and services. Mary invites questions and comments at EverydayCheapskate.com/contact, “Ask Mary.” Tips can be submitted at Tips.EverydayCheapskate.com. This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Copyright 2020 Creators.com