The Science Behind: New Year’s Resolutions

Instead of aiming for unrealistic goals, try habit-stacking.

Even the most generous estimates show that half of us fail to keep our New Year’s resolutions. That’s because most of us start off too big. We decide to launch into a whole new lifestyle all at once. Or we think we’re just going to get there by the sheer exercise of willpower. But that ignores the science of how willpower works. In their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy F. Baumeister, a leading expert in the subject, and co-author John Tierney state that willpower isn’t a fixed, genetic trait — it’s a muscle, and one that can be strengthened.

And the best way to use our willpower to adopt healthier habits is — you guessed it — by starting small. It’s a common element of every successful behavior change program. “Make it easy” is how James Clear, author of Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, puts it: “The central idea is to create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible. Much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding ways to reduce the friction associated with our good habits.”

To reduce that friction, try habit-stacking: adding a new habit on top of one you already practice, such as doing five push-ups after you brush your teeth. For more ways people are molding their environments to help them reach their goals, check out this story.

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