How to Make Your New Year’s Resolutions Stick

Charles Duhigg on the science of setting goals and achieving them.

Photo illustration of a person wearing a "Happy New Year" hat.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by fStop Images - Patrick Strattner/Brand X Pictures via Getty Images Plus.

There’s a lot of research about New Year’s resolutions and about how to create resolutions that work. But what matters most is how we structure our New Year’s resolutions. The first big rule is that resolutions like “This year I’m going to get into shape” or “This year I’m going to save more money” are much, much less effective than coming up with a specific plan. In fact, instead of thinking in terms of New Year’s resolutions, we’re better off thinking about a New Year’s plan of action, and the smaller and more specific that plan, the better. On a recent episode of How To!, we looked at how previous guests put those plans into practice and what we can learn from them. These excerpts have been condensed and edited for clarity.

How To Look Like a Superhero,” Sept. 17, 2019

Jeff has the charisma and the swagger to star in a superhero movie, but he does not quite look the part yet. So a few months ago, we gave him a bunch of workout and lifestyle advice.

Charles Duhigg: How is your body looking, man?

Jeff: It’s ridiculous. Sometimes I walk past the mirror and I catch my reflection, and I back away in fear of myself. I don’t know. Yeah, I look good, man. I look a lot better than the last time we spoke. In part based on what we talked about, but also I’m a circus boy now. I go to the circus, and I train in the aerial and handstands and acrobatics. But it’s an offshoot from everything we spoke about, which was diet, exercise, consistency. I’ve also been doing rock climbing because I found that the way that I’m getting definition and the upper-body development has just gone through the roof because of those things—keeping your own body guessing.

Charles: It’s not just that you’re going to play a superhero—you are like Spider-Man or Batman now.

Jeff: Absolutely. I’m just waiting for a really close relative to die in a horrendous accident so I can develop my mutant power. Once that happens, the transformation is complete, and I will never go by the name Jeff anymore. It will be Strong Boy, and that’s definitely important. I’m going to keep it “Boy” because that makes me sound a little younger than I am. Strong Boy. It’s going to be a great outfit as well. A lot of spandex, a lot of bright colors.

Charles: Gold lamé tassels.

Jeff: Yeah, on the shoulders. So it’s going to be great.

It’s easy to eat healthier when you’re feeling healthier. Well, I’m not going to lie and say that I didn’t eat Del Taco last night, because I did and it felt good. I sat in my underwear in my bedroom and I ate it like a slob, but I was eating it off abs, which was nice, you know?

Charles: Right, exactly. What the research says is that to keep a change like this going, it’s important to recognize these baby steps. In the scientific literature, it’s actually referred to as the science of small wins. When you see a small victory, like a little bit more definition in your arm or feeling a little bit more healthy, it gets that much easier to actually do the next small thing until cumulatively you look amazing. The way you make sure you notice these small victories is to celebrate them by giving yourself some kind of reward when you do that small thing that you intended to do, like go to the gym three days in a row.

Jeff: That’s actually been built in, but as part of the workout. By booking myself into a circus class or going down to the rock-climbing gym, I’m actually treating that like, “Oh, I’m going to do some exercise, but also this is a fun day out.” It’s like an activity. It doesn’t feel in any way mundane. It feels like a reward. Actually what I’m doing is rewarding myself with something that I’m going to love doing but also continues to make me healthier.

How To Sleep,” Dec. 10, 2019

Ben had tried just about everything to get more shut-eye, but nothing worked. So we introduced him to Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk who recommended Ben try to meditate a little bit every day. He walked Ben through a bedtime meditation to help him sleep. We checked back in with Ben to see how his nights have been going since we got Andy’s advice.

Ben: It’s been really good. I mean, I got up at 6:30 this morning, I went to jiujitsu, and I was completely awake for that class, and sleep has been more solid. I’ve been meditating before bed, not in the morning like Andy recommended—I’m going to start doing that too. I’ve been trying to be more mindful generally throughout the day, just sort of taking in the world instead of distracting myself with stuff, and trying to keep my mind calmer. But it seems to help. I think just the meditation at night really helps. Something is palpably different. I have a feeling that I have a long way to go with it, but it’s definitely better.

Charles: That’s great. Tell me about last night. Walk me through what happened.

Ben: Well, I did all my usual things, like don’t eat dinner late and stop looking at screens by a good hour before. Then after I shower, I usually meditate for about 10 minutes or so. I get to this kind of state that I’ve noticed where I feel physically heavier, like my feet and hands kind of feel heavy. It’s odd. And I go, “Oh.” That’s when it seems like I’m done meditating and I can go to bed. Even if I feel restless in bed for some reason, the quality of sleep is higher when I do that.

How To Stop Being Anxious,” Aug. 27, 2019

Matt from Texas had been experiencing daily anxiety attacks since the death of his oldest daughter, Makenna, who had special needs. So we introduced him to Dr. Ben Michaelis, a clinical psychologist who gave him some simple techniques to try out when he felt his anxiety rising. Matt says they’ve been working.

Matt: I wouldn’t have believed that it would even be possible, but God’s honest truth, I have not experienced any anxiety attacks since I talked with you guys. It’s so weird because something clicked in my head, Charles. I don’t know if it was you guys hearing it and then saying, “Matt, that’s OK that you’re doing that because you’ve been through a lot.” That sort of verification of “Yeah, you’re in pain. It’s OK to freak out.” Whatever that was, in my head it clicked, and I have been using the techniques that the doctor gave me there on the phone with you.

I stand up when I feel a little bit of pressure. I’ll stand up, I’ll walk around. I’ll literally talk to myself and say, Hey, this is just your body freaking out. Just relax. For the longest time, I had to really consciously do that. Now when I feel a little bit of that coming back, or if I’m super busy or super stressed out, I have some really good coping mechanisms that have just been miraculous for us.

Charles: I am so happy to hear that. That is such great news, Matt, because I know that this was weighing on you so much.

Matt: Oh, man. I don’t have to bring an extra shirt to work anymore. That’s a pretty big one. I don’t sit there and sweat over and over again. Of course, my wife has been just so supportive through all this. She didn’t want me stressing either. When she would see me start to spiral, or once she figured out by really listening to the podcast a couple of times and us talking, “Hey, sometimes I just need to send one text message and let it sit. Then when you get it, you’ll respond, and I know you’ll respond,” it really helped. Now I don’t grab my phone and go, “Oh, no, here it goes.” It’s really been life-changing.

Charles: One thing that Matt’s story demonstrates is something psychologists have learned. There’s this temptation to believe that we ought to know how to change on our own. That we should be able to figure out how to exercise more or cook a perfect meal or fall asleep. Because after all, other people do this on their own all the time. So why can’t we? But what the research shows is that having someone to give us good advice—even if it’s just a podcast offering weekly tips or a friend to talk things through with—can make a huge difference. If nothing else, sometimes just listening to another person describe their problems can help you reframe own struggles in a new way, making it easier to see new solutions. Matt is putting that into practice with others.

Matt: There’s a family with a child with special needs and medical needs, and essentially they called and said, “Teach us.” They said, “We don’t know what we’re doing. We’re totally freaked out, and we have no idea where to start.” The husband was in the mindset of just being very real with me, transparent with me: “Hey, I’m going to get out of here. I can’t handle this. I can’t handle a sick kid.” What we told him, the couple, was that it’s these times that you’re going to really grow. It’s not in the easy times that you grow as much. It’s the combat, man, it’s the daily warfare that you hone your skills.

I just applied that to him: “Hey, you’re going to freak out. You’re dealing with this issue that’s not going to go away tomorrow. Are you going to go away tomorrow? That doesn’t make any sense.” Honestly, he broke down right there in front of his wife and kids and apologized to them. We talked every couple of days, and we developed this kind of unique relationship where we can be completely honest with each other, and I think that’s something I took away from you guys—just being honest.

Charles: Yeah. I’m sure you’re making a huge difference in his life by being there and being available for him.

Matt: That’s it, man. I told you guys I really want to help. Like I said, I was a pastor for 10 years, and I spent 10 years investing in people. But to have some people invest in me back was very life-giving.

Charles: Matt’s story is so gratifying to hear, in part because it sort of shows how much people can change and that to make our plans really stick, it’s so helpful to share them with another person. Study after study has shown that when people try to create new habits, if they do so in a group, even if the group is as small as two people, it can make a huge difference. So as you think about 2020, you should think about finding a workout buddy or someone to cook with you or maybe even a podcast listening group.

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