Why Resolutions Don’t Stick

Kelly McGonigal on why we break resolutions and how to make ones that stick. 

Kelly McGonigal teaches a course called “The Science of Willpower” at Stanford University and is author of The Willpower Instinct. In a Q & A with Ted, she spoke about harnessing willpower to craft a New Year’s resolution that you can follow all year.

McGonigal says when it comes to New Year’s resolutions, it’s not surprising that they are often broken by the second week of January:

People come up with resolutions that don’t reflect what matters most to them, and that makes them almost guaranteed to fail. Even if that behavior could be very valuable and helpful—like exercise—if you start from the point of view of thinking about what it is you don’t really want to do, it’s very hard to tap into willpower. If there’s no really important “want” driving it, the brain system of self-control has nothing to hold on to.

McGonigal suggests a few tips for making resolutions that stick:

1. Tap into willpower by pausing and looking into what you want to cultivate in the future, as opposed to choosing resolutions that have to do with immediate discomfort or gratification.

The kind of New Year’s resolution that works is when you start really slowing down and asking yourself what you want for yourself and your life in the next year. What is it that you want to offer the world? Who do you want to be, what do you want more of in your life? And then asking: “How might I get there?

2. Take some time to think about how you can fold your resolution into your day-to-day life.

One year my resolution was to focus on being a better mentor, and to look for ways in every professional relationship to do that. You start looking around, and you see every conversation as an opportunity to choose that value and move toward that goal.

3. When it comes to those things you think you should do—get fit, write a novel—give yourself permission to take baby steps and consider that sufficient to get you going.

There are a lot of things like that, where we think, “I won’t get my novel done unless I can put aside a whole weekend to write.” Well, you could create a novel in a paragraph a day. So I encourage people to think: what’s the smallest step that they could take that is consistent with their goal? And not necessarily worry about whether they believe it’s sufficient.

Read the full Ted Blog Q & A. And if New Year’s resolutions aren’t your thing, you might be interested in McGonigal’s Physchology Today blog post, “Five Things You Can Do Instead of New Year’s Resolutions.”