Making Self-Improvement Stick

A new year offers each of us the opportunity to start fresh to set new goals, recalibrate priorities or establish some helpful new habits. It’s a time when we can take stock of our lives, re-evaluate life choices and focus on what we truly want, like personal growth or other meaningful changes. Whether it’s finally pursuing that passion project, forming healthier daily routines or simply being more present with loved ones, the new year is a great time to reflect on how we want to show up differently and lay out a plan to become a better version of ourselves.
Although temporal landmarks like New Year’s Day motivate aspirational behavior, a phenomenon coined by researchers as “The Fresh Start Effect,” many people have trouble keeping their New Year’s resolutions. For most of us, by mid-February, the sweet comfort of old, familiar patterns starts to creep in, and our enthusiasm for change starts to wane. That’s because making your self-improvement stick and successfully affecting long-term change is challenging. There are, however, proven strategies grounded in behavioral science that can help transform resolutions into new sustained lifestyles and mindsets.
Award-winning behavioral scientist Katy Milkman wrote an article for CNN Health based on her book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. Most effective for smaller, concrete goals, she lists out these five ways for sticking to resolutions.

Strategies for making change last.

  1. Make detailed cue-based plans outlining exactly when and where you will act to increase accountability and the likelihood of following through with your change. For example, if your resolution is to go to the gym at least three days a week, make sure that you specify when exactly you will go, e.g., “I will go to the gym on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 6:00 a.m.”
  2. Consider stakes or penalties like cash bets or social announcements to motivate sticking to resolutions through built-in costs for failure. Incentives have the power to change our decisions, but penalties are even more motivating.
  3. Keep it fun by incorporating elements of pleasure into the habits themselves to intrinsically drive persistence and make it sustainable. If your exercise routine is not fun, it is unlikely you will keep up with it.
  4. Cut yourself some slack and allow for the occasional exception without writing off the entire resolution. If you stay up late watching your favorite show and miss your Wednesday workout, give yourself a get-out-of-jail free card and pick up the next day.
  5. Get by with a little help from your friends. By pursuing resolutions collaboratively with peers, the group increases its chances of success due to mutual support, motivation and the ability to learn tips and tricks from one another. For example, if you’re just starting at the gym, get a workout buddy or ask questions of other gym-goers as they pop up. Learning how others achieved success and trying out their methods increases the chances of your own success.

While the optimism of a fresh start often fades by mid-February, with science-based strategies, lasting change is always within reach. Approaching resolutions as inviting experiments in living a more fulfilling life can set the stage for personal growth and meaningful progress. However, important keys to that approach are self-compassion, permitting for some flexibility, leveraging social supports, and, above all, finding pleasure in progress. With consistency around these supportive tactics, you can make self-improvement stick and become your best in ways that ripple outwards to the benefit of everyone you come in contact with.

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