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The Science of New Year's Resolutions explores the psychology behind setting and achieving goals during the start of a new year. By examining the motivations, habits, and behaviors that contribute to successful resolutions

The Science Of New Year’s Pre-Resolutions

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The Science Of New Year’s Pre-Resolutions

There’s a military dictum that “prior preparation and planning prevents p[retty] poor performance”, to paraphrase it very slightly.

Would it surprise you to know that soldiers going on the attack are not focused on the goal? Rather, they are focused on the process.

With drills and mnemonics, everything that can be controlled for in advance is; every action, every reaction, everything that can go wrong, and all the “if x then y” decisions in between pre-battle PREWAR and PAWPERSO and post-battle PACESDO (all mnemonic acronyms; the content is not important here but the principle is).

In short: take Murphy’s Law into account now, and plan accordingly!

The same goes for making your plans the winning kind

If you want your resolutions to work, you may need to make pre-resolutions now, so that you’re properly prepared:

  • Do you want to make an exercise habit? Make sure now that you have the right clothes/shoes/etc, make sure that they fit you correctly, make sure you have enough of them that you can exercise when one set’s in the wash, etc.
    • What grace will you allow yourself if tired, unwell, busy? What’s your back-up plan so that you still do what you can at those times when “what you can” is legitimately a bit less?
    • If it’s an outdoors plan, what’s your plan for when it’s rainy? Snowy? Dangerously hot?
    • What are the parameters for what counts? Make it measurable. How many exercise sessions per week, what duration?
  • Do you want to make a diet habit? Make sure that you have in the healthy foods that you want to eat; know where you can and will get things. We’re often creatures of habit when it comes to shopping, so planning will be critical here!
  • Do you want to cut some food/drink/substance out? Make sure you have a plan to run down or otherwise dispose of your current stock first. And make sure you have alternatives set up, and if it was something you were leaning on as a coping strategy of some kind (e.g. alcohol, cannabis, comfort-eating, etc), make sure you have an alternative coping strategy, too!

See also: How To Reduce Or Quit Alcohol

We promised science, so here it comes

Approach-oriented resolutions work better than avoidance-oriented ones.

This means: positively-framed resolutions work better than negatively-framed ones.

On a simple level, this means that, for example, resolving to exercise three times per week is going to work better than resolving to not consume alcohol.

But what if you really want to quit something? Just frame it positively. There’s a reason that Alcoholics Anonymous (and similar Thing Anonymous groups) measure days sober, not relapses.

So it’s not “I will not consume alcohol” but “I will get through each day alcohol-free”.

Semantics? Maybe, but it’s also science:

A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals

Why January the 1st? It’s a fresh start

Resolutions started on the 1st of January enjoy a psychological boost of a feeling of a fresh start, a new page, a new chapter.

Similar benefits can be found from starting on the 1st of a month in general, or on a Monday, or on some date that is auspicious to the person in question (religious fasts tied to calendar dates are a fine example of this).

Again, this is borne-out by science:

The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior

Make it a habit

Here be science:

How do people adhere to goals when willpower is low? The profits (and pitfalls) of strong habits

As for how to do that?

How To Really Pick Up (And Keep!) Those Habits

Trim the middle

No, we’re not talking about your waistline. Rather, what Dr. Ayelet Fischbach refers to as “the middle problem”:

❝We’re highly motivated at the beginning. Over time, our motivation declines as we lose steam. To the extent that our goal has a clear end point, our motivation picks up again toward the end.

Therefore, people are more likely to adhere to their standards at the beginning and end of goal pursuit—and slack in the middle. We demonstrate this pattern of judgment and behavior in adherence to ethical standards (e.g., cheating), religious traditions (e.g., skipping religious rituals), and performance standards (e.g., “cutting corners” on a task).

We also show that the motivation to adhere to standards by using proper means is independent and follows a different pattern from the motivation to reach the end state of goal pursuit❞

Read: The end justifies the means, but only in the middle

How to fix this, then?

Give yourself consistent, recurring, short-term goals, with frequent review points. That way, it’s never “the middle” for long:

The fresh start effect: temporal landmarks motivate aspirational behavior

See also:

How do people protect their long-term goals from the influence of short-term motives or temptations?


You might like this previous main feature of ours that was specifically about getting oneself through those “middle” parts:

How To Keep On Keeping On… Long Term!


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