How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

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January 8, 2024

How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

When the confetti is falling, the glasses are clinking and you’re flush with excitement for the new year, it’s easy to make lofty resolutions.

Keeping them over the next 12 months is another matter.

According to Forbes Health magazine, which conducts an annual survey on New Year’s resolutions, our resolutions tend to fizzle out within four months, on average.

Want this year to be different? Choose a goal that’s specific and difficult, but achievable, suggests new research from the University of Oregon’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Setting specific and challenging goals can help us stay focused and improve our performance during a task, a UO graduate researcher discovered in a recent study, published in the academic journal Attention, Perception & Psychophysics.

“This strategy can be implemented in everyday settings like school or the workplace, where a failure to maintain attention can compromise performance,” says Deanna Strayer, a doctoral student who led the study in Professor Nash Unsworth’s lab in the Department of Psychology.

“You can turn a lot of what you do into a challenge for yourself with the right goals—and in turn, you may find yourself more engaged in the work.”

Understanding attention lapses

Strayer’s research at the UO stems from her fascination with attention lapses—those brief moments throughout the day when our mind wanders or we’re otherwise distracted from the task at hand.

Deanna Strayer
Deanna Strayer

“They’re this ubiquitous thing that everybody experiences in one way or another,” Strayer says. “Sometimes those lapses have little to no consequence, like forgetting to attach a document before sending an email or missing a turn while driving. However, in some cases the consequences of a lapse in attention can be far more impactful, like running a red light and causing a car accident or forgetting the flash drive holding your work presentation on it at the bus stop.”

Understanding what causes attention lapses—and how to prevent them—can help us develop strategies for achieving ongoing goals, such as New Year’s resolutions.

Strayer’s study compared response times and task performance in participants who were given a vague goal versus those who were given a more specific goal for completing a task. The results showed that participants pursuing a specific goal that became more difficult over time not only maintained their focus, but they worked faster and were able to sustain their speed throughout the task.

"Typically, we see participants begin to respond slower as the task goes on,” Strayer says. "We found evidence that setting a specific goal that becomes harder over time led to fewer attention lapses and improved response times.”

Setting better New Year’s resolutions  

If the statistics about achieving New Year’s resolutions seem discouraging, experts say that should not dissuade you.

“I like to remind cynics that if you flip the discouraging statistics about New Year’s resolutions on their head, you’ll see that 20 percent of the goals set each January succeed,” says Katy Milkman, a behavioral scientist at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, in her book How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.

“That’s a lot of people who’ve changed their lives for the better simply because they resolved to try in the first place,” Milkman adds.

Strayer’s findings point to a simple goal-setting strategy anyone can implement when formulating New Year’s resolutions. The key to success lies in how you define your goal.

Make it specific. “Specificity helps you gauge your progress better than a vague end goal,” Strayer says. For example, the most popular resolution this year is to improve fitness, according to Forbes. But what does that mean? How will you measure your success? Instead, set a concrete and measurable goal, such as exercising for 20 minutes a day.

Make it challenging but achievable. “If a goal is too easy, that can actually lead to worse performance because you’ll gravitate toward that too-easy mark instead of pushing yourself,” Strayer says. “Conversely, setting a goal that is too difficult or unattainable may cause you to abandon it entirely.”

Make it harder as you go. If you really want to stick to your resolutions, ratchet up the difficulty as the year progresses. Study participants showed the most success when pursuing goals that grew progressively more challenging. When pursuing a fitness goal, for example, you might increase the length or frequency of your exercise sessions each month.

"These simple tweaks to your goal can help you pace out your efforts and measure your progress,” Strayer says.

—Nicole Krueger, BA ’99 (journalism), is a communications coordinator for the College of Arts and Sciences.

Top New Year’s Resolutions for 2024

Curious to see how your New Year’s resolutions stack up?

Forbes Health magazine surveyed 1,000 US adults in October to discover their goals for the coming year. Respondents were allowed to select more than one answer.

While improved mental health topped the list in 2023, it dropped down to third place this year, replaced by a focus on fitness and finances. The top five responses included:

  1. Improved fitness (48%)
  2. Improved finances (38%)
  3. Improved mental health (36%)
  4. Weight loss (34%)
  5. Improved diet (32%)