The Secret to Keeping Your New Year’s Resolutions May Be Simpler Than You Think

Photo by Cathryn Lavery

New Year’s resolutions are great in concept. If you aren’t a character in a Chuck Palahniuk screenplay, self-improvement is a worthwhile goal, and a calendar year is a spectacularly tidy span of time in which to achieve something. Resolutions seem like a foolproof plan, but somehow the majority of us don’t get anywhere with our lofty January goals.

Last year we looked at a couple alternatives to resolutions that may be more worth your while. If you’re sticking with the classics, though, you might need a little help.

First, take a look at Dr. B’s ten tips for achieving your goals. Next, consider recalibrating your expectations. Here are three myths that you should toss out while tackling your resolutions:

Myth 1: It takes 21 days to form a new habit.

Want to exercise daily? Write in a journal every night? Start meditating? Pinterest is just full of motivational quotes telling us that all we need to do is succeed for 21 days and we’ll have a whole new life.

But here’s the thing: that 21 days idea doesn’t have solid scientific backing. It originally comes from a single doctor’s observations about the effects of plastic surgery on his patients. Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a surgeon who practiced in the first half of the twentieth century, noticed that it took patients a minimum of 21 days to adapt to the changes in their appearance. He wrote about that in Psycho‑Cybernetics, a self-help book published in 1960. Through a long-running game of self-help Telephone, that wisdom has been winnowed down to the idea that it takes exactly 21 days to form a habit — any habit, for just about anyone.

Researchers who’ve looked at the practice of habit formation have found that it actually takes a lot longer. One study found that participants took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for a task to become habitual.

So the bad news is that you probably won’t be able to forget about your goal after three weeks and still wind up succeeding at your resolution. The good news is that you don’t need to feel like a failure if you’re still struggling with a new habit after a month. It takes time and effort to change your life, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you haven’t nailed it on day twenty-two.

Myth 2: It’s all about tracking your progress.

It’s hard for me to say this as someone who has a good dozen habit-tracking apps on her phone, but tracking isn’t always the best approach to achieving your goals. While it’s important to know if you’re moving in the right direction, a 2005 study found that tracking progress can actually be counterproductive if you make it your focus.

Researchers found that “focusing on an action in terms of goal progress may sometimes facilitate inconsistent choice of subsequent actions.” In other words, someone who focuses on the fact that they’ve successfully saved money for a few weeks might indulge in retail therapy to celebrate, and someone who makes good progress on their goal of losing weight is more likely to cheat with a big meal. If the progress itself becomes more important than the goal, it’s easy to lose your way.

Myth 3: Willpower is a finite resource.

Thanks to a few popular TED talks and self-help books like The Willpower Instinct, it’s become common knowledge that willpower is a resource that gets depleted with use. Most of that is based on a 1998 study that showed that people who employed self-control in refusing a tempting treat were quicker to give up on an unsolvable puzzle than those who indulged in the treat instead. The theory became known as ego depletion.

Want to study hard for a test? If ego depletion were real, you’d be well-advised to throw your other good habits out the window, because you’d need to save that willpower for hitting the books.

Over the past few years, however, the theory of ego depletion has seen some serious criticism. Several studies were unable to replicate the original results. Meta-analysis also failed to support the theory. Most damning of all may be a 2013 study that found that participants only showed signs of ego depletion if they already believed willpower was limited.

What now?

Dismantling your assumptions about how to build habits and achieve goals will only get you so far, but it may help you avoid some common pitfalls. Given how many myths we put our faith in, it’s no wonder so few of us manage to achieve our resolutions.

So what’s the secret to success? Like Lúcio says, you gotta believe!

Sounds overly simple, but science backs it up. That same study that found that focusing on progress could be counterproductive found that focusing on your commitment to the overall goal was much more helpful. A 2006 study found that dreaming big about our goals (or “activating high-level construals”) led to less desire for immediate satisfaction, increased physical endurance, increased self-control and decreased interest in temptation.

As for willpower, believing that it’s limited may limit it — but believing it’s limitless makes us happier overall.

Having a plan, tracking your success and rewarding yourself are all tried and true methods of achieving our goals. While you’re at it, remember why you want to achieve your goals in the first place, and keep those reasons in front of you. Success isn’t guaranteed, even if you try your best (and it’s okay to fail), but if you want the motivation you’ll need to get through the tough parts, believing in your goal can go a long way.

So here’s to a successful year ahead — you’ve got this.

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