New year’s resolutions. Depending on which study you read, anywhere between 80 to 94% of them fail. So why do we keep doing them, and how do we do them better?

At Actionable, we view a new year’s resolution as nothing more than a commitment to a behaviour change or new habit.

Most of the things we commit to as new year’s resolutions are things we want to start doing or stop doing or do with intention.

It’s usually a shift in our patterns of behaviour. And here at Actionable – that’s what we do – we help folks shift their behaviour patterns.

In 2022 alone, we saw over 30,000 people change their behaviours in a work context.

What was beautiful about that is that we were able to access that data and to analyze it, to be able to look for the themes and trends and commonalities amongst the people that thrived, that were successful in shifting those behaviours.

Tips on setting new year’s resolutions that work 

As you set your resolutions, I want to give you some tips on dramatically increasing the likelihood that you will realize lasting change.

This approach falls into three parts. One is around the commitment itself, the second is around the structure of that commitment, and the third is around what is realistic.

Get ready for a bit of geeky science and some very practical tips on setting new year’s resolutions that will work.

  1. Decide on a resolution that matters to you

The commitment itself needs to be something that matters to you. Now, this may sound incredibly obvious, but people often make commitments based on what they think they should be doing. 

Whether that’s what other people have told them they should be doing or what people around them are doing that they admire. None of these things deeply matter to you. 

So, if you’re considering a new year’s resolution and you’ve decided that this is the thing that you want to commit to, ask yourself, how long have I been dedicated to this?

Is this a new shiny thing, or is this something that’s been building inside me? That longevity matters. Because when the going gets tough later, it’s unlikely that you will stick with it.

For a more comprehensive resource, check out How to Begin: Start Doing Something That Matters by Michael Bungay Stanier. It’s a brilliant read that takes you deeper by laying out a tested process to find and strengthen your commitments, so you know what you’re up for. 

I highly recommend everything Michael writes, but that book, in particular, can be pretty transformative as you look to the year ahead.

Try this exercise to decide on a commitment that matters

A powerful exercise is also to ask yourself why. Ask yourself a series of why-like questions to get to a deeply personal reason for that commitment. Similar to the 5 Whys approach to finding the root cause of a problem, which is a popular continuous improvement technique for any level of an organization. 

Personal example? I used to be a smoker. I spent many years denying that fact. But it’s true. I used to smoke a lot of cigarettes.

A couple of years in a row, I committed but failed to quit smoking. I was doing it because my girlfriend, now wife, wanted me to and because my friends around me had started to quit. But I failed because it wasn’t a deep enough “why” for me. 

In 2017, I made the same commitment to quit smoking. But this time was different because I uncovered my deeper why. I got behind the why and even deeper still. We were two months away from having our firstborn son that new year. 

I thought about being a father and being active and healthy with my kids. Why does that matter? Because I want to keep up with my kids. Why? Because it’s important to me and my identity that I am a good father, that I am playful and present, and that I’m a part of their lives in a rich and meaningful way.  It stuck. And I’m proud to say I haven’t had a cigarette since.

You must dig deeper and uncover the motivation behind your resolutions and goals. So, I strongly encourage you to go a couple of layers deeper to get there. 

Be specific with your commitments!

The words you use to describe the commitment significantly impact your ability to follow through. Break your commitments down into small and specific chunks. 

If you have triggers that circumvent you from achieving any of your smaller commitments, identify them and make a diversion plan. A diversion plan is a new habit, something small. 

For me, my trigger for quitting smoking was stepping outside. The fresh air made me reach for my lighter. Instead of reaching for my lighter, I would take three deep breaths, which is proactive and something I have control over.

  1. Make sure your resolution is something you can create real progress on within 30 days

Why 30 days? Well, from the data we’ve seen, that’s about our attention and motivational span to stick with a commitment before it peters out. 

This is one of the reasons why most people abandon their new year’s resolutions by the end of January. It’s because we don’t have the staying power on something we don’t see real progress.

For example, say your new year’s resolution is to run the Boston Marathon, but that’s not coming up until mid-April. You need to break that goal down into smaller units to achieve it.

  1. Make sure your resolution is feasible to your current reality 

Ask yourself if the resolution you have in mind is achievable. For instance, if you are a single parent with three kids and lead a very sedentary lifestyle with a poor diet, running the Boston Marathon in April is probably not feasible to your reality. Because you’re starting from a deficit place.

That example is not judgment. It just means that you will set yourself up for failure if the new year’s resolution is unrealistic based on your current reality.

Far too often, new year’s resolutions look like this: “this is the year that I’m going to get in shape and be a better spouse and be a star employee and get that promotion and buy the new car and ALL THE THINGS!”

That’s not how behaviour change works. That’s not how we, as humans evolve. We are incremental creatures. We must be reasonable and give credence to our current reality because we’re all dealt different cards. 

Social support matters

Social support truly matters. Do you have an accountability partner on your commitment or resolution? Whom have you told about your commitment? What check-in process have you set up with them to measure progress?

We know from actionable data that you are 38% more likely to realize your behaviour change if you have an accountability partner.

Identifying someone who will support you or just knows about the commitment you’re working on makes you 38% more likely to realize your behaviour change. 

Build in time for reflection

Finally, you need to build in time for reflection. We’ve seen a 22% increase for those who journaled through the process of shifting their behaviour.

People are 22% more likely to create lasting change if they journal when trying to shift their behaviour and stick with an objective. 

Journaling doesn’t have to be scary, either. Journaling in Actionable-land is a couple of lines of text on a phone. The point is to have a cadence by which you look back on your progress and the activities you took to get there.

Think about what’s working, what’s not, and what you do to course correct. You can layer new versions of the habit on top of each other at this point.

These reflection points are what James Clear calls habit-stacking, where we can leverage one win into the next and the next.

In general, so much more can be applied to behaviour change and new year’s resolutions. It’s not surprising that the failure rates are what they are because most people don’t have this information.

But you now do. I hope you put it to good use, and good luck in the year ahead.

New Year’s Resolutions are great.  But what about corporate change? Want your workshop participants to make commitments that stick? Download our 7-point checklist for driving consistent audience adoption.