12 Scientifically Proven Ways to Succeed at Your New Year's Resolutions

The pandemic doesn't seem to have dampened Americans' enthusiasm for linking a New Year to a fresh start. More than two thirds of Americans plan to make a resolution for 2021, polls show, which is roughly the same as in years past. What has changed: The most common objectives for 2021 look strikingly different from traditional New Year promises, and attitudes about when, how and why to tackle key goals have changed as well.

The reason: More than half of Americans say their usual pre-COVID January 1 resolutions—think, hitting the gym more often or nabbing a big raise—aren't applicable to their lifestyle anymore. Seven in 10 say they are tossing out materialistic pledges and instead looking to learn life skills, improve overall wellness or savor experiences, like time with family, according to a survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Affirm.

And while doing a better job of managing money remains a top priority, the motivation people give for wanting to make a financial change has shifted too. Previously, the top reason people gave for pledging to adopt better money habits in a new year was to live a debt-free life, according to Fidelity Investments, which conducts an annual poll on financial resolutions for the New Year. In 2021, this year's survey found, they're looking to achieve greater peace of mind.

"People want to feel like they're moving forward and regaining control," says Stacey Watson, senior vice president of life event planning at Fidelity.

2021 sign
Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

Getting there, though, will take a lot more than good intentions. Research shows that people typically abandon their New Year's resolutions within six months and the health, financial and social stresses of the first half of 2021, when the pandemic will still be widespread, will likely make sticking to your pledges even more challenging.

"Uncertainty and hardship related to COVID-19 may make it especially difficult to prioritize New Year's resolutions in 2021," says Charles Herrick, chair of psychiatry at Nuvance Health's Danbury Hospital, New Milford Hospital and Norwalk Hospital. "Many people may cling to old, familiar, comfortable habits in an attempt to maintain some degree of stability in these uncertain times. This may make it harder to make the changes required to achieve new goals."

What can help steel your resolve: practical strategies and tricks based on a growing body of behavioral research about the factors that enable people to successfully change their habits and stick with new ones. In fact, studies show that people who use these evidence-based techniques are far more likely to achieve their goals or make significant progress than those who don't—in one study, at least, up to 10 times more likely.

After the year everyone has had, those seem like pretty good odds to take.


Knowing the right way to frame your goal is half the battle. Behavioral researchers and psychologists with expertise in goal setting recommend the following evidence-based strategies:

Commit to the Change

People often dismiss New Year's resolutions as a silly or useless exercise given their high failure rate. But research shows the very act of making them greatly increases the likelihood you'll meet your goal, or at least get a lot closer to it than you would otherwise.

In one study, John Norcross, author of Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions, tracked nearly 300 people in two groups who had some problematic behavior, such as smoking or failing to exercise enough, that they wanted to change. The only difference was that one group of participants actively resolved to work on changing their behavior starting January 1, the other did not. At the end of six months, Norcross, a professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, found that those who had made an explicit resolution were far more likely to have successfully changed their behavior than those who hadn't—46 percent of resolvers succeeded versus just 4 percent of the non-resolvers group.

Making the resolution at least a few days in advance of the New Year instead of, say, five minutes before midnight on December 31, also likely increases your odds of success. That's because this kind of pre-commitment encourages you to anticipate and prepare for your new routine. And, it comes with an in-built start date forcing you to take action, not delay for some ideal future time.

Pre-commitment, for example, helped one group of taxpayers substantially increase the amount they saved of their refund from Uncle Sam. In a study conducted by Common Cents Lab, Duke University's behavioral finance research lab, one group of taxpayers were asked to save a portion of their tax refund when the money hit their bank account and another group was asked how much they wanted to save of their refund before they'd filed their taxes. Those who made a spur of the moment decision to save, put away 17 percent of their refund, compared to 27 percent, on average, for those who pre-committed to saving.

Be Single-Minded

Most Americans make two resolutions each year, on average, Norcross found, but for 2021 he recommends scaling back. "Most of us are preoccupied with pandemic concerns," he says. "We can't bring the same commitment, motivation, or prioritization to our resolutions as we could in other years. Think of it like trying to drive while distracted."

Even in an ordinary year, picking a single resolution to focus on can increase your odds of success, as a series of four studies by researchers at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management found. Participants who were encouraged to identify one savings goal, such as saving for a child's education ended up putting away more money over the six-month period of the study than those who were prompted to save simultaneously for multiple goals, such as saving for college, retirement and healthcare needs. The researchers concluded that the multiple goals competed with each other and increased the likelihood people would over-deliberate about how to proceed and delay the actions needed to achieve their goals.

Act SMART—and Be Realistic

The SMART strategy, an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound, provides a useful rule of thumb to follow when framing your resolution. Using these guidelines, for instance, a vague pledge to "save more money this year" might become a resolution to "automatically direct $100 from each paycheck into a high-yield savings account for all of 2021."

Numerous research studies have shown that people perform better when striving to achieve specific and challenging goals, rather than equally specific but overly-easy goals or vague goals like "do your best." So set the bar high, but be mindful of putting it in the clouds. Resolving to complete a marathon in six months' time when you've never even gone jogging, will likely set you up for disappointment, frustration, and eventually quitting. A more realistic ambition to go jogging for 30 minutes three times a week is likely a better starting point as small wins early on will motivate you to do more, Herrick says.

Couch potato
Don't resolve to run a marathon in 2021 if you barely budged from the couch in 2020. Maybe start with a little light jogging first. Karen Hatch / Contributor / Getty Images

Target Behavior, Not Results

Jelena Kecmanovic, director of the Arlington/DC Behavior Therapy Institute and a psychology professor at Georgetown University, warns that goals should be centered around factors you control, such as your own behavior, rather than a particular outcome. Resolving to lose 10 pounds sounds like a clear, realistic ambition but it is dependent on the weight actually coming off. Instead, focus on things like limiting dessert to one night a week or going for a 30-minute nightly walk after dinner instead of watching TV, which could lead to the desired weight loss.

The goal also needs to matter most to and be inspired by you, not someone else. If you're making this change because of societal pressures or the opinion of someone else, you're likely to fail, says Herrick. And data backs this up. Research published in Canadian Psychology says that when goals reflect a person's individual values, they do better at achieving it because they "experience less conflict and feel a greater sense of readiness to change their behavior."

Anticipate the Triggers

To achieve your resolution, you'll probably need to make some alterations to your daily life to counter the problem behavior. Think about what situations or emotions lead to it and what a better alternative might be. So if you smoke when you're feeling anxious or stressed, successfully quitting may involve you taking up running, meditation or breathing exercises as an alternate way to ease that tension.

Research has shown that such "if-then" plans can improve your self-control and the likelihood of attaining your goal. For instance, a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that college students who used this technique to curtail unhealthy snacking—by, say, deciding to eat a favorite fruit or vegetable instead of chips or cookies whenever they were feeling bored or in need of enjoyment—consumed more healthy snacks per day and fewer calories of unhealthy foods than participants who lacked such an if-then plan.

Apple a day
Keep your favorite fruit handy so if you're tempted to rip into a bag of chips, it will be just as easy to grab an apple instead. Lisa J Goodman / Contributor / Getty Images

The key, says Kecmanovic, is to try to anticipate as many different situations that could tempt you and make a specific plan for what you'll do instead in each of those moments. That way your brain almost goes into autopilot and you don't have to deliberate over how to respond.

Go Public

Most people naturally desire to avoid letting people down and feel embarrassed when they do. So use that feeling to help you make good on your resolution, Herrick suggests. Tell your partner, family, friends or co-workers that you've undertaken a resolution, he says, and how you plan to achieve it. A study conducted by the American Society of Training and Development found that the odds of completing a goal rose to 65 percent for people who shared their objectives with someone else, and to 95 percent for those who went an extra step and set up regular appointments to check in with that person.

If someone else's opinion of your efforts isn't sufficiently motivating, try putting some money on the line. This could mean giving a family member $100 to hold for you until you reach your goal—they get to keep it if you fall short—or using a goal-setting website like stickK.com to make a financial pledge to a charity of your choice if you quit. StickK finds that users who add financial incentives are three times more likely to keep their resolutions than those who don't.


Once you've framed your resolutions in a way that makes them easier to achieve, set yourself up for long-term success with these steps.

Remove Temptation

People with strong willpower don't resist temptation, they avoid it by arranging their home, office and social life in a way that limits exposure to situations that trigger the habit they want to change, according to research published in the academic journal Personality and Individual Differences. For instance, if you looking to save money, try unsubscribing from all retail email lists, and unfollowing brands, stores or influencers on social media, says Wendy De La Rosa, a behavioral scientist and co-founder of the Common Cents Lab: "The best way to avoid spending temptation is to just not get those notifications at all."

A survey that the Common Cents team conducted of restaurant diners demonstrates the relative effectiveness of reducing the number of times you put yourself in a position to be tempted into behavior you're trying to change. More than 1,300 people were polled about different techniques aimed at curbing spending on eating out; the options included setting a dining-out budget, limiting the number of times you go to a restaurant per week and cutting the amount you allow yourself to spend on a single meal. The best method? Dialing back on restaurant visits. Simply removing access to those tempting dishes gave people greater confidence they could stick to their goal and save more overall. Study participants estimated they would save $74 a month, vs. $56 for limiting spending per restaurant visit and $44 for setting a weekly budget for dining out.

Make It Easy to Be Good

If you're looking to eat better, stock your fridge with pre-cut fruits and raw veggies to snack on. Or if you're hoping to save money on takeout, load up on your favorite ingredients so you're inspired to cook after work and not reach for the UberEats app or stop in at your favorite diner.

"In the future, we think we will be perfect, we are all going to be our own personal version of Beyonce," says De La Rosa. "We think our future selves can do more than we can today, so use that to your advantage by making decisions now for the future." One way to do that: Block out daily or weekly time in your 2021 calendar now or set up reminders through your apps to prompt you to, say, practice Spanish for 15 minutes, reach 10,000 steps or call your family for a catch-up.

New Year's resolutions calendar
Block time in your calendar for the activities that will help you attain your 2021 goals. Lewis Mulatero / Contributor/ Getty Images

A study out of the University of British Columbia showed how effective this kind of self-nudge can be when you're initially trying to change behavior. It found that when individuals who had participated in a diabetes prevention program were prompted to work out by an app, the amount of exercise they reported to be doing significantly increased in the three days after receiving the message compared to the three days before receiving the prompt. One drawback: The strategy only works for the first six months.

Track Your Progress

With some goals, like reducing debt, it is easy to see how your efforts are literally paying off, when you watch your outstanding balance drop consistently. But for other resolutions, you may need to get more creative about how you record your efforts, maybe by journaling, taking photos to see incremental changes or downloading an app that automatically tracks your spending or periods of movement. This kind of "self-monitoring" increases the probability of you'll keep up the good behavior, says Norcross.

For example, in a study of overweight women aged 50 to 74 in rural Florida published by the journal Eating Behaviors, participants in a weight-loss program were asked to record their food and drink consumption. Those with the highest number of entries after six months lost the most: 14 percent of their body weight, on average—and they continued to lose weight over the following year, shedding more than 20 percent of their total body weight when the researchers followed up at 18 months. By contrast, participants with fewer food-and-drink entries lost significantly less weight after six month and regained half of it by the 18-month mark.

Why does the simple act of monitoring your behavior work so well? Two large-scale studies, one focused on people who wanted to lose weight and the other on subjects looking to curtail alcohol consumption, found that tracking helps people take greater responsibility for their actions, rather than blaming it on external factors. The research, published in the journal Digital Health, also found that it inspires helpful interpersonal competition as people strive to break previous records and remain on track to reach their goal.

Recording your progress can also serve as a motivation booster when you begin to flag. The trick is to focus on whatever perspective—the progress you've made so far or how much you have left to go—makes the amount of effort involved seem smaller, according to a series of studies published in The Journal of Consumer Research. So early in the year, reflect on the 20 percent of the resolution you've already completed as opposed to the 80 percent remaining—say, the 2,000 steps a day you're now taking if your ultimate goal is 10,000, not the 8,000 you have yet to walk. But when you're closer to the mark, flip that perspective and focus on the fact that you only have 2,000 more steps a day to go before you hit the desired 10-000-step level.

Reward Good Behavior

Changing a habit is hard and initially the benefits from such efforts may not be enough to keep you motivated. For instance, the release of endorphins from a new exercise regime may not outweigh the initial soreness or muscle cramps you're feeling.

So reinforce your positive steps with a small treat you'll only get to enjoy if you engage in that new habit, says Norcross, who became a daily flosser when he decided he wasn't going to allow himself to play a round of golf, his favorite pastime, at the weekend if he hadn't flossed each morning of the preceding week.

Just remember the reward shouldn't undo the good progress you're making. So a week of saving an additional $100 shouldn't earn you a new pair of shoes or dinner out, but rather a chance to indulge in that Netflix series you've wanted to watch or a visit to that new hiking trail you're eager to climb.

Find a Support Group

"Most of us can get through the first couple of weeks on our own, but our commitment begins to erode over time and that's where a support person or group can help," says Norcross, adding this usually becomes essential toward the end of January.

These people will follow up on your progress and cheerlead your efforts two or three times more than they will critique them, he adds: "Pick positive, enthusiastic people, not naysayers."

Joining a group of people with similar aims can be a great way to find this kind of positive support and encourage change. A study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, for instance, found that when people, who were trying to achieve a weight loss goal, did so along with three friends or family members, they shed more pounds than those who went it alone and were also more successful at maintaining their new weight: Only one in four doing the program alone did not regain any weight after 10 months vs. two-thirds of those doing it with friends.

Possible resolution for 2021: Drink less, move more (unless you're drinking just the right amount). Ruckiah Hussain / Contributor

We also tend to mirror the behavior of people we like and admire, says Herrick, so surround yourself with like-minded individuals who will help reinforce the new habit.

Get Back on the Horse

You will slip up—and more than once. It is inevitable. But that slip shouldn't be an excuse to give up on your goal. Instead, pick yourself up and recommit, says Norcross, whose research found that 71 percent of successful resolvers say a misstep actually strengthened their drive to see the goal through.

And skip beating yourself up over a mistake too. Harsh self-criticism or guilt doesn't help and could even prevent you from accomplishing your goal, according to research published in the Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. The study looked at drinkers who had violated their self-imposed alcohol limits and found that strong feelings of guilt led to poorer self-regulation, and, in turn, actually increased consumption and led to more limit violations.

"We seem to expect perfection, which is maddening," says Norcross. "If you bake muffins perfectly 300 times and mess them up once, would you give up baking them? No, you'd try again."

And remember, research shows, it takes three months before a change in behavior becomes routine. Fingers crossed, by April, you'll be reaping the rewards of your 2021 resolve.