The Science-Based Secret to Sticking to Your New Year’s Resolution

Photo by Namita Azad
Photo by Namita Azad
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The Challenge: Many of us make New Year’s resolutions then we find it hard to stick to them.
The Science: A cold turkey approach is actually counterproductive for change!
The Solution: Planning and spacing out your goals over a longer period of time makes it easier to make long-term changes.
Change is one of the biggest obstacles in the way of happiness. It’s possible to know that we should change and we can even want to change but still not do anything about it. We continue to live with our same bad habits year after year, leading to unhappiness. Actually making a change is one of the most difficult things to do.

The problem isn’t figuring out what we need to change, it’s figuring out how to do it. According to the American Cancer Society, roughly 70 percent of smokers say they want to quit but less than eight percent actually do so without help. Similarly, a Gallup poll found that more than half of U.S. adults want to lose weight but only a quarter of them are actively pursuing this goal. It’s clear we are aware of the changes we need to make but we find it hard to take action.

In college, I would approach my schoolwork with a “Just Do It,” all-or-nothing, approach. The problem was that I often chose the “nothing” side, as I would get overwhelmed with the proposition of completing it all at once. It turns out that this is a common psychological phenomenon.

Psychologist James O. Prochaska, Ph.D., has dedicated his life to researching planned change and has determined that change is something that occurs in stages, not all at once. While Nike’s ad slogan “Just Do It” may have generated consumer buzz over the years, Prochaska would argue against its effectiveness in actually promoting change. “Too often we’ve presented people with a false choice: Take immediate action, or do nothing. And those are bad choices for most people. If they take action and aren’t ready, half will fail. And if they don’t take action, they’ll continue with their unhealthy lifestyle,” says Prochaska.

So what’s the answer to this problem? It turns out that, whether you have a 30-page paper due or are trying to lose 30 pounds, spacing is key!

The spacing effect can be best understood in the context of learning. Information that you learn over a spaced out period of time has proven to be much easier remembered than information that is crammed without intervals of time.

The top New Year’s resolution for 2014 was to lose weight. However, the majority (92 percent) of those who set this goal ended up falling short. The spacing effect may help understand why. According to Dr. Kari A. Hortos, patients are more likely to lose weight and exercise if they set small, measurable goals. “If they feel they need to lose 100 pounds, they should take it five pounds at a time or even two pounds at a time,” Hortos said. There is a reason the saying is “an apple a day keeps a doctor away,” not “365 apples a year keeps the doctor away.”

This New Year, let’s take a new approach to change. What we have been doing up to this point hasn’t been working and it isn’t due to a lack of effort. In fact, maybe we have been trying too hard. Bad habits aren’t created in a day and neither is change. Both are created over time. Whether you want to get in better shape, break a bad habit or learn something new this New Year, set out to accomplish your goal one step at a time. With patience and perseverance, you will have the power to actually achieve the changes in your life that you have always dreamed of.

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Justin Mertes-Mistretta

Justin Mertes-Mistretta

I am an enthusiastic basketball coach, eager-to-learn student, proud son, grandson and brother, loyal friend and loving boyfriend. However, I am not defined by any one of these. I try to live in the moment as best I can. My goal in life is to make each day as happy as possible for those I'm closest to.
Justin Mertes-Mistretta

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