A simple way to make your new year’s resolutions stick

By Ingrid Fetell Lee
desk with planner and red striped sweater

It’s the time of year for turning over a new leaf: starting an exercise program, remembering to floss every day, or starting to save more and spend less. But while we often embark on these resolutions with great momentum, some studies say that up to 80 percent of new year’s resolutions have already failed by February!

How do we go wrong here? Why do most resolutions fall flat almost as fast as our New Year’s champagne?

I was surprised to find that the answer may be that our resolutions are lacking in joy. Research by USC psychologist Wendy Wood has shown that habits can be a double-edged sword when it comes to achieving our goals. The repetitive nature of habits reduces friction, making behaviors more automatic over time. But this also tends to blunt our emotions. We no longer feel resistant to a behavior after doing it many times over, but that emotional vacuum is exactly what makes us fall off track. Craving a break from the monotony of our habits, we veer off in search of joy.

Creating joyful resolutions

But if we build joy into our habits from the beginning, this is less likely to happen. If instead of forcing ourselves to go running, we instead play tennis with a friend, then exercise becomes something to look forward to. Similarly, if we order a spool of cupcake-flavored dental floss (I made this up but it turns out it actually exists), taking care of our teeth is no longer a dull chore. A resolution to cut back on drinking alcohol is made more joyful by trying out new recipes for colorful mocktails. A resolution to be more organized might be an excuse for some joyful color-coding!

Some habits also provide micro-doses of joy, in the form of intrinsic rewards, that we can pay more attention to. For example, as psychologist Kelly McGonigal pointed out in a recent New York Times piece, we can find joy in the feeling of energy or strength we get immediately after lifting weights or the feeling of pride that comes from not smoking cigarettes. Similarly, if your resolution is to go to bed earlier, you might take a few minutes to appreciate what it feels like to be well-rested in the morning.

Tricks for trickier resolutions

Of course, some habits are hard to make joyful. Saving money, for example, involves forgoing the pleasure of short-term spending for long-term security. One way to strengthen these less-fun resolutions is by building in treats. Habit expert Gretchen Rubin reports that studies show that when people allow themselves a small treat, it increases their self-control. So perhaps savers should give themselves a “joy dividend” — a small, periodic bonus for in the moment enjoyment. Or those who are trying to read more might choose one book purely for pleasure each month to sustain their motivation. These treats don’t even have to be related to the resolution. Rubin notes that pleasurable scents are a treat for her. A walk in nature could be a treat, or a field trip to a gallery or museum.

In some cases, of course, repetition can actually become a source of joy. For example, the writer Jerry Seinfeld has a simple trick for motivating himself to write every day. He keeps a big wall calendar, and each day that he writes, he marks with a big red X. After a few days, the Xs begin to form a chain, and as they accumulate, keeping the chain growing becomes irresistible. Those Xs are a manifestation of the harmony aesthetic, which describes the joy we find in repeating patterns. The harmony of the unbroken chain becomes its own kind of reward. You might also engage the abundance aesthetic in creating rewards: just putting a marble in a jar for every day you work out lets you see the cumulative effect of your newfound habit in a joyful way. As the marbles accumulate, they become a beautiful reminder of the changes you’re making.

The power of celebrations

One other way to build joy into resolutions is with celebration. I’ve taken a new strategy this year of planning out goals for 2019 with a planner from Cultivate What Matters. I loved seeing that their template asks you to reflect on how you’ll celebrate when you achieve your goal. It was fun to think through each goal and what celebration might make sense. For my goal of growing as a painter this year, I decided I’ll celebrate by framing something I make and hanging it up. Celebrations don’t have to be big — a happy dance, a favorite meal, or a round of high fives on a group text with friends can all do the trick. Celebrating works because it can kick off upward spirals of positive emotions, which research shows can help sustain behavioral change but increasing our unconscious motivation.

We’re often tempted to believe that if something is good for us, then it can’t be enjoyable, and vice versa. But when it comes to New Year’s resolutions, it seems clear that we’re much better off when we lead with joy.

January 10th, 2019


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