How to make your New Year’s resolutions stick: The power of setting concrete goals

Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution, only to give it up a few weeks later? If so, don’t worry, you aren’t alone. According to research from the University of Scranton, an estimated 92% of Americans who made a New Year’s resolution for 2012 failed to realize their goal. This raises a question: what did the other 8% do right?

Usually you can count me with the 92% of folks who fall short in achieving their resolutions. In most years, my garden-variety oaths to exercise more or drink less fall by the wayside well before the start of spring. In spite of my poor track record, somehow in 2012 I found myself part of the 8% who succeed. That year, my resolution was to read 20 new books by year’s end – a goal that I surpassed by mid-September. So what did I do right, when so many past attempts had failed?

In the book, Switch, Chip Heath and Dan Heath discuss the best ways to make a change in behaviour stick. Amongst other factors, one way to ensure that change lasts is to set a goal which gives you a clear direction to follow. To be most effective, this goal should be simple, concrete, and actionable.

Let’s say you want to start eating a healthier diet, and so you make a resolution to “eat healthier” in the coming year. Despite your best intentions, you fall back to your old ways a mere two weeks later. Sound familiar? According to the Heath brothers, the main reason for faltering isn’t laziness, but a lack of clear direction. Your goal to “eat healthier” is just too sweeping and ambiguous to execute in your day-to-day life. Ambiguity, it turns out, is why many of our New Year’s resolutions fail.

Your chances of success will be much greater if you make a resolution that’s clear and concrete – something you can easily take action on and doesn’t leave any wiggle room for digression. For example, you’re more likely to create a lasting change in your eating habits if you set a simple goal to change one specific behaviour, such as “switching from whole milk to skim or 1% milk,” rather than trying to overhaul all your eating habits in one fell swoop. A goal like “only drink skim milk” works because it’s laser-focused, unambiguous, and easy to follow.

This helps to explain why I was able to achieve my goal of reading 20 new books in a year. What I didn’t do is make a vague resolution to “read more books” in the new year. Instead, I was specific about the number of books I’d read and the time frame in which I’d read them. Clear as crystal.

Originally, I thought 20 books in a year would be a stretch – doable, but ambitious. However, as often is the case with big goals, they can appear less daunting if you break them down into bite-sized chunks. Case in point: to read 20 books in one year means finishing a book every two and a half weeks, on average. That works out to reading 20 pages a day, assuming a typical book has roughly 350 pages. Only 20 pages a day, now that’s workable.

In retrospect, my resolution wasn’t so far-fetched after all. Just by reading a little every day, I was able to finish my 20th book by the middle of September and, by the end of the year, I read 27 books in all.

Buoyed by this success, I decided to set a new goal for 2013: to read at least 23 new books to bring my two-year total to an even 50. I’m happy to say I hit the mark and, as in 2012, I finished a total of 27 books by year’s end.

So this year, if you want to create a New Year’s resolution with staying power, make sure to frame it in simple and specific terms. For instance, instead of resolving to “save more money” or “lose weight” in the new year, challenge yourself to “make your morning coffee at home” or “take the stairs at work.” Be clear and concrete if you want to make your resolutions stick.

As for me, I’ve set a new goal to reach 100 books by the end of 2015 – to stay on pace, that’s 23 new books in each of 2014 and 2015. Do you have suggestions for good reads? Please leave a comment below.

Update: I finished my 100th book, Finding Your Element by Ken Robinson, on October 28, 2015. It took me three years and 301 days (1,397 days in all) to complete this goal.