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January 1, 2015 12:01 AM EST
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

This year I resolve to…

Hold on a second. Let’s not join the lemmings who screw this up every year.

88% of people fail to achieve their New Year’s Resolutions.

There is a ton of science on this subject so if we want to do New Year’s Resolutions, let’s do them right.

First, Stop Fantasizing

Do fantasies give you the energy to achieve your goals? Nope.

Fantasies steal the energy you need to achieve your goals:

You’re getting the reward before you’ve done the work and this kills your motivation. Don’t celebrate on mile 3 of the marathon.

Itching to express something about your resolution? No problem: Write your goals down.

Writing about goals makes you happier and makes you more likely to follow through with them.

Now it’s time to grit your teeth and get to work? Wrong.

Willpower Is Limited

Relying on self-control only is a sucker’s bet.

Roy Baumeister, author of the bestseller Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, explained in our interview:

You are not going to muscle through with willpower. You cannot sprint for miles. Change takes planning and strategy.

So what’s the first step?

New Year’s Resolution — Singular

How to conserve that limited resource of willpower? Conquer one resolution at a time.

This way you exert less willpower and concentrate what you have. Roy recommends this specifically:

What else works? Making something habitual means you don’t have to exert willpower.

You spend 40% of every day on autopilot, just performing habits and it’s not exhausting at all.

Here’s Roy again:

So how do you get the ball rolling when trying to start a new good habit?

Minimum Viable Effort

It’s okay to be a little lazy at first. Literally, just do the minimum.

The key to new good habits is to do the minimum and be consistent.

Stanford researcher BJ Fogg calls it “Minimum Viable Effort”:

The first step is crucial — keep it tiny. Do not be ambitious yet. That leads to failure.

Consistency is what you’re shooting for here so make the hurdle as low as possible.

In fact, make it so low you’ll feel stupid that you were unable to do something that literally would have taken seconds.

But what if you want to get rid of a bad habit? Well, that’s different…

Replace, Not Kill

The secret to breaking bad habits is to not try to eliminate them but to replace them.

The first step is awareness. That cigarette doesn’t magically appear in your mouth. Noticing yourself acting habitually is a big first step.

Next is find your trigger. What starts you down the road to that habit? I get stressed and then I eat. I get bored and then I want a cigarette.

Next is replace. What are you going to do now when that trigger arises? Establish something new to take the place of the old habit.

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, explains the whole process:

Sounds challenging, right? What can make this easier?

Make A Plan

Richard Wiseman did a study of people who achieved their resolutions and found that people who succeeded had a plan.

He sums up the results in under a minute here:

But planning is hard…“, you say.

Want a powerful but passive way to increase your chance of success? Get ready to move some furniture.

Manipulate Context

Manipulate your environment so as to make what you should do easy and what you shouldn’t do hard.

You can resist bad habits by avoiding the triggers that make you want to do them. Context is key.

Change your environment so you don’t have to exert self-control. Throw out the donuts. Hide the booze. This has been shown to be very powerful.

Via Habit:

If you can make good habits take 20 seconds less time to perform and bad habits 20 seconds longer, you’ll likely see big changes in your behavior.

Adding things to your environment can be a big help too: Reminders to do the right thing (like signs or even text messages) work.


Context isn’t just inanimate objects. Friends are one of our biggest influences and can be a potent tool for habit change.

Via 100 Simple Secrets of Happy Families:

From Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business:

But how do we sustain all this?

It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

Ironically, studies show saying “I’ll never do that again” makes you even more likely to do that again.

Expect to fumble.

It’s okay. In Richard Wiseman’s study of people who achieved their goals he realized we should:

So you say you’re not going to eat cookies. Then you accidentally eat a cookie. That’s not when the diet is blown.

The diet is blown when you eat the one cookie and say “So much for that resolution” — and then devour the rest of the bag.

Don’t get discouraged.

There are so many tools to help you. (“If-then” scenarios are one of the most powerful tools for resisting triggers. Commitment Devices work too.)

Overall, use baby steps, focus on consistency above all else and reward yourself for “small wins.

This post is over but the challenge isn’t.

This weekend I’ll be following up with more resources for sticking to your New Year’s Resolutions in my weekly email.

If Cookie Monster can improve his habits, so can we.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join 45K+ readers and sign up for my weekly update here.

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