Keeping New Year's resolutions is hard—in one survey, fewer than half of New Year's resolvers stayed on track for six months. But there are psychological techniques that up your chances of success, many of which we've reported on in the past. Below, we've got a rundown of research-based ways to keep new habits, whether it's eating healthier, quitting smoking, or being kinder to friends and strangers.
1. Have a Friend Remind You With Non-Judgmental Questions
Are you going to the gym tonight? Are you planning to get that cancer screening? Neutral questions can prod people to take up new behaviors because they create "a spring-loaded intention," David Sprott, a dean at Washington State University's business school, explained to Pacific Standard in 2015. That year, Sprott and a team of marketing researchers published a meta-analysis of studies about how asking people questions influences their behavior. Fifty-one past studies found that questions can work, although the mechanisms are complex.
2. Find Your Sense of Purpose
Resolutions often require people to rein in their impulses and put up with temporary discomfort for long-term gain. Folks who say they feel their life has purpose tended to do best in a game that required them to do just that, eschewing fast money now for bigger payoffs at a later date, as a 2015 study found. "So as a new year approaches, why not ask yourself where true fulfillment lies for you?" Pacific Standard staffer Tom Jacobs writes. "There's a good chance you know the answer, but the idea of pursuing it scares you. If so, take comfort in the fact that the benefits of a purposeful life can be long-lasting and profound."
3. Don't Force Yourself to Go Cold Turkey
We've all got that uncle who stopped smoking one day in 1985 and hasn't touched a cigarette since. In general, though, folks who weaned themselves off their habits tended to keep their resolutions longer than those who quit abruptly, as a 1989 study of 213 resolution-makers found. In addition, more than half of those who kept their resolutions for two years had slip-ups along the way—they reported an average of 14 moments of weakness. Yet they apparently continued trying and succeeded.
4. Just Making a Resolution Is a Great Start
It's true that most resolutions fail, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't make them at all. In a 2002 survey, only 4 percent of people who reported they were interested in breaking a habit, but didn't make solid resolutions, had made that positive change six months later. Compare that to 46 percent of people who made and maintained resolutions after half a year. Intentions matter, and several strategies can help you keep to them.