Several years ago I received a fantastic Christmas present. Having heard for months that I wanted to learn how to play and write music, my parents came through with the ultimate gift for a would-be songwriter: a gorgeous Martin acoustic guitar.
Handcrafted from East Indian rosewood and quartersawn Sitka spruce, it was a majestic instrument worthy of a great player—or at least someone who could strum more than three chords.
So with high interest, I set out to master my new instrument. I bought guitar instruction books. I signed up for a few lessons. I practiced daily.
But inevitably, life got busy, and practices became less frequent. By spring, my beautiful guitar was gathering dust in the corner.
For the past few years, learning to play the guitar has repeatedly topped my list of personal resolutions. But despite my good intentions, sticking with my goal has proven more difficult. And apparently, I’m not alone: More than one out of three New Year’s resolutions flame out by the end of January, according to a survey by FranklinCovey.
This time, I've decided to act differently. I looked at what the latest research says about actually realizing your goals, and found that, regardless of your specific goal, the success principles are the same.
So whether your resolution is to save money, lose weight, commit to a healthful habit, get organized, or develop a new skill—these are frequently cited as the top five most popular personal resolutions—here are four strategies that academic researchers agree can make a big difference.
1. Prepare to take action
According to psychology researchers at the University of Scranton, a person’s readiness to change—how prepared you are to take the necessary action—is the single best predictor of resolution success.
Those who are most successful at following through don’t just come up with a goal while singing “Auld Lang Syne” at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. Those who have worked on a plan for many days or weeks before Jan. 1 have a substantially higher chance of success.
I’ve started searching online for guitar lessons near the office so I’ll be ready to hit the ground running.
2. Stimulate positive behavior
To study the parts of the brain that form habits, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have trained rats—which have similar brain structures to humans—to use audio cues to find chocolate in a maze. As the rats learn the audio cues, navigating the maze becomes a habit that requires little brain activity. But this habit persists only so long as the chocolate treat is in the maze.
From this experiment and others, researchers concluded that our habits are highly related to the stimuli around us. If our goal is to eat more healthfully, for instance, we shouldn’t leave an inviting plate of chocolate chip cookies on the kitchen counter.
Because I’ve discovered my interest in learning music is strongest right after I see a live rock concert—I want to do that, too!—I’ve decided to get tickets to a live show at least once a month for the next year. Before I go to each concert, I’ll leave my guitar on my bed so it’s ready to play as soon as I get home.
3. Maintain accountability
The No. 1 reason cited for New Year’s resolution failure was having too many other things to do, according to the FranklinCovey survey.
To combat this, several researchers have noted that developing simple systems to easily monitor progress toward our goals—even when we’re busy—can prove critical.
It might sound clichéd, but I’ve set aside a special wall calendar to check off each day I practice. Instead of private guitar lessons, I’m signing up for group lessons where I can see others improve and have a better sense of where I stand relative to the group.
4. Weather the temporary setbacks
A growing body of research suggests that it is not the strength of our willpower, but rather how we respond to moments of weakness, that determines our ability to ultimately follow through.
Psychology researchers at the University of Washington, for instance, discovered that in an attempt to quit smoking, most people sneak a cigarette or two along the way. But those who eventually quit for good use each lapse as a chance to search for causes of their momentary failure in order to avoid them in the future. Unsuccessful quitters, on the other hand, view lapses as evidence they don’t have the willpower to persevere.
In the weeks and months to come, I know there will be times when I forget to practice my guitar or simply don’t have the time. But I also know that how I respond to such setbacks makes all the difference.
So if you want to make sure you fail at your resolutions, definitely don't use these strategies. Because if you do, you just might have a chance of success. About one out of every five people who set New Year’s resolutions are ultimately successful two years later. Will that be you?
About Ben Kaplan
Ben Kaplan is a best-selling author, popular speaker, and CEO of PR Hacker — the world's fastest growing viral marketing firm. He has been featured on more than 5,000 TV and radio shows including appearances on Oprah, Good Morning America, CNN, Fox News, CNBC, NPR, and the BBC.