Five tips to make your New Year’s Resolutions stick

How is your January going? 

Wherever you are (unless you’re lucky enough to be in New Zealand) your January is likely to look quite different to previous years.  

The tumultuous past year also seems to have affected our approach to making New Year’s Resolutions. Research by Brandwatch has shown that the top three resolutions mentioned across social media have shifted dramatically this year. In 2018-2020 the top three were consistently (in various orders of priority) stopping or reducing drinking, changing or improving our job or going vegetarian/vegan. This year, we’re focusing on seeing family and friends, learning something new and reading more.

It appears that our ambitions have become more modest and more focused on areas of our lives that we can control. We’re also less inclined to deprive ourselves of that well-earned glass of wine after a day of juggling work and Zoom school.

Whatever your ambitions for 2021, sticking to good intentions can be difficult. With this in mind, we’ve gathered five tips grounded in behavioural science principles to help close the intention-action gap.

1 / Be specific

Our resolutions often fail because we focus on the end result rather than the behaviour changes that are needed to successfully drive them. 

Dan Ariely says that the more specific a resolution is, the less room it creates for doubt: “If you want to cut down on desserts, don’t say you’ll simply eat fewer desserts; say you won’t eat desserts on weekdays. Period. Then you don’t have to guess at what ‘less’ means.”

2 / Set a plan

Fail to plan, plan to fail. As Peter Gollwitzer says, “Not only do your goals have to be desirable, achievable and have a specific outcome, you also need to think about the when, where and how.”

Sitting down to draw up a robust plan, or as it’s known in behavioural science an implementation intention, detailing the new behaviour you want to create as well as where, when and how you will carry it out helps us feel committed to the change as well as identifying the potential trigger points in our routines and environments that can help us to instil new habits.

3 / Start small

While it can be tempting to set ambitious goals, BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits system acknowledges that this can set us up for failure. Instead, the Fogg method focuses on building sustainable habits through small behaviours that have the potential to snowball. 

For example, if your goal is to drink more water, focus on having a glass of water before your morning coffee while the kettle is boiling. Or if your goal is to create a flossing routine, commit to simply flossing one tooth – the likelihood is that you’ll go on to do the whole mouth. As Fogg says, “if you pick the right small behaviour and sequence it right, then you won’t have to motivate yourself to have it grow. It will just happen naturally, like a good seed planted in a good spot.” 

4 / Be accountable

Commitment devices are a key part of any behavioural toolkit. Robert Cialdini writes that people who commit in words or on paper to a given goal are more likely to follow through, because they begin to associate that goal with their self-image.  

Even if you can’t exercise with others due to Covid restrictions in your area, why not tell others of your intention to go for a run and ask them to follow up on you? If you want to go a step further, set consequences for not following through with your intentions. These might be big, eg sending £100 to your friend, or less big but still unappealing – committing to putting the bins out for the rest of the month for example.

5 / Make it rewarding

Another critical element of building habits is to build in a sense of reward. While a behavioural trigger prompts us to perform the behaviour for the first time, it’s the payoff at the end which makes us want to repeat it in the future. 

Emotional rewards and lifts are often most powerful. For example, if your goal is to read more in 2021, consider prioritising the type of books you find gripping – or if your goal is to reach that big political biography consider building in a reward at the end of each read. Recently I’ve recently found that swapping intense but monotonous HIIT workouts, for The Class which is focused on stress relief through lots of free movement gives me a much bigger emotional lift meaning that I actually (whisper it) look forward to doing some exercise.


Read about how we applied the science of behavioural economics to encourage better behaviours on the pitch for The FA here.

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