How to keep a New Year’s resolution


I'm not a fan of New Year's resolutions. We know that people keep less than 5% of New Year’s resolutions, and I think a big reason for this is that anything we are trying to change in our lives is really about self-discipline.

I realized this after spending two years reading what positive psychologists have discovered makes people happy. And, it turns out, that everything we know about what makes us happy comes down to having self-discipline to do what we know we want to be doing.

So of course making a New Year's resolution doesn't work, because it's the act of saying, “I want to make a change, but I'm not going to do it now. I'm going to do it in January.” That's not self-discipline, that's procrastination, right?

If you want to make a change in your life, you can start right now, with something that is not that hard to change.

1. Start small.
Because the best way to make a change is to start with something small, relatively easy to do, and not necessarily related to what you want to change. Solving problems is a snowball thing, which might be the most transformative research I have come across in the last five years because it has given me the encouragement to get started on lots of personal changes that look very hard.

For example, if you go tell yourself you have to drive to the gym every day, you can change your life. You don't need to force yourself to work out. You probably will, but you can tell yourself you just need to drive to the gym. And reorganize your day so you can do that. And if you actually go into the gym, then you will eat better. So you don't need a goal of working out more or eating better. You just need to change your daily schedule so you drive to the gym and sit in the parking lot.

2. Think in increments of three weeks.
And, more good news: Your New Year's resolution really takes only three weeks to complete. Because if you force yourself to change your behavior for three weeks, your brain will start to develop more dopamine in response to the behavior that you are trying to change to, according to Monika Fleshner, a neuroimmuno-physiologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. For example, after three weeks, your brain will start to release dopamine when it thinks about going to the gym instead of when it thinks about ditching the gym.

3. Get the wording right.
Be careful about how you word your goals. If you say, “I need to go to the gym more,” just forget it. It'll never happen. You need to break down the steps to defined tasks. You should say, “I need to drive to the gym at 4:30 every day and I cannot drive out of the parking lot until 5:30.”

The biggest source of poorly worded goals is the urge to do something to please someone else. It's very hard to write a clearly worded goal if it does not come from inside you. “Live up to my potential.” That is a great example of a terrible goal. Besides the fact that living up to one's potential is BS, it is not actually a goal, either. I mean, what is potential? How do you know it? How do you know if you are there? What does it look like?

4. Visualize what you will look like.
Research reveals lots of tricks for getting you to stay on your path to your goal — tying success to money, telling friends, etc..

But this is a trick I really like: There’s a guy, Jim Fannin, who coaches professional athletes like Alex Rodriguez. He says that the key to making these guys great is visualization. He teaches them to visualize what success looks like.

If you can't do that, it doesn't mean that it doesn't apply to your goal. It means your goal is bad. Psychologists understand that people are very unlikely to reach any goal you can't visualize. And university labs have applied this theory to just about everything — from throwing a fastball to having an orgasm.

5. Forget New Year’s day. Start now.
Pick one, very reasonable thing you can change in your life for three weeks straight. Just to practice self-discipline. Don’t even worry about the other, big stuff you want to change. Start off 2010 by creating a path to success.

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  1. Anna
    Anna says:

    I think quite a bit of what holds people back is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of new habits, fear of a different life. I want to turn off my cable. I want to watch less TV, so I want to turn off my cable. I know watching less TV will be very good for me. I know I need to turn off my cable to watch less TV. But I’m fearful of missing the comfort and convenience of it. I’m fearful of making such a huge lifestyle change.

    • econopete
      econopete says:

      So my goal of “get a girlfriend” requires I follow through the intermediary steps, including finding a woman that’d want to date me? This could be tough…

      • econopete
        econopete says:

        I was going to say that cable becomes overrated when you start taking writing classes, because you start poking holes in all the stories. However, I must say that Mad Men is exceptional.

        However, I meant my previous post to be part of a separate thread. Sorry.

  2. Giovanni
    Giovanni says:

    I would say that the last step (#5) is a biggie. Many people decide they want to do something radically new or make a big change and they talk themselves out of it by the time the new year starts. It’s best to go all in now and invest some time into your goal. My objective was to start a blog (I admit its not that radical but is been on my mind for awhile now) but I’m glad I’ve started now rather than wait.

  3. Beth
    Beth says:

    Nice article. Another downfall is trying to do too many things at once. Pick one ot two areas to focus on and break your goals into small steps, then its easier to succeed.

  4. Tyler
    Tyler says:

    Great suggestions, I believe that one the biggest causes of failure in keeping New Year's resolutions is not really understanding what is important to you when you set them. The deeper you dig in your assessment of yourself and what is important to you the more likely it is that you will make and keep successful resolutions

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I actually link to Leo in this post (at “break down the steps”). I link to his list of steps to making goals, and I probably should have given him credit instead of just linking. Anyway, it’s a great list. You could read one of the links each day and change your life around.

      Sidenote: The reason I started waking up at 5:30 am is that Leo has a whole chapter in his book about why that works so well. And, I have to say that following that piece of advice made my life a lot better. Really.


  5. Erin
    Erin says:

    This is the some of best advice I’ve ever seen on getting started on a fitness program/making a life change:

    “You just need to change your daily schedule so you drive to the gym and sit in the parking lot.”

    My dad tells me all the time, “Cultivate the Habit”…get on the treadmill for 5 minutes, but keep it as part of your day.

    This is actually one of my favorite posts you’ve written, P!

  6. diana
    diana says:

    yep. clean the kitchen sink and your house will start to become clean.
    (idea courtesy of the fly lady)
    baby steps.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is great. It’s so simple, but it applies to everything. We just don’t want to believe that the world is this simple because then there’s no excuse for not doing something so easy as cleaning the sink to transform the whole house.

      I wasn’t planning to comment here, but this example has been in the front of my head for the last 24 hours. I love it. Thanks, Diana.


  7. snow
    snow says:

    Thanks for this, Penelope.

    Keep your head up. 2010 is going to be your year! Our experiences make us who we are — you will come out a better and a stronger person because of what happened in 2009.

    Wish you the best.

  8. Gretel
    Gretel says:

    I’ve noticed that getting the wording right really makes a difference for me. I’m more likely to follow through if I say, “I am a person who flosses her teeth” instead of “I need to floss my teeth.”

  9. neko
    neko says:

    Two (thought provoking) posts in two days: YAY.

    Just when I was contemplating how to incorporate more hugging into the work day (along with maybe even a pre-work sip of wine), now i have to find a gym parking lot to go park/sit in(!)

    This post is GENIUS.

  10. Lance
    Lance says:

    I’m going to go on a no-alcohol and vegetarian diet for exactly 1 month and up my gym frequency by 1 more session per week…so maybe 3-4 times per week, through January Tough but attainable goal. I did all 3 of those things last year and by far the hardest one was the vegetarian diet!

    • Bethany
      Bethany says:

      I’m not usually a big fan of PETA, but the site has some helpful recipes and ideas I became pescatarian (ovo-lacto vegetarian who occasionally eats seafood raised in a manner I like)over the summer and having good recipes made it a lot easier. Whole Foods website has a lot of good vegetarian recipes as well. Homemade black bean burgers (black beans, chopped portabello and other mushrooms, smoke sauce, and some onions or green peppers with egg to bind it all) is one of my favorites. Smoke Sauce helps anything taste a little “meatier” Also, Gardein has some really great fake meat that tastes way better than other brands. If you want more recipes, let me know and I can send some your way. It opens a whole new world of cooking when you see veggies as the main dish and not meat.

  11. ion Consultants
    ion Consultants says:

    These are great tips to keeping your resolutions. Though good tips, I have to say that by March, I have forgotten what a set out for. Last year, I started my New Year’s resolution 2 months early. I still remember what it is, and have acually accomplished it.

  12. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    I’d like to make an addition to #4 – visualize what success looks like, but then also visualize yourself doing the things you need to do to get you there. Visualize yourself hitting the gym three times a week, but then visualize clearing the space on your calendar to go sit in the parking lot.

    Research has also shown that taking it down from the abstract level (the outcome) and down to the concrete (the story of how to get there) can also increase the success rate at performing new tasks. This research was referenced in Made to Stick, although I don’t have it in front of me to find the reference…

  13. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:


    You have me shaking my head upside-down agreeing with you that self-discipline is the key to success. Thanks for the reminder and motivation. I also agree that if you put it off to January, it is indeed procrastinating.

    Great post.

  14. Isao
    Isao says:

    No.5 – Forget new year, start right away – is a great advice. I think the “gap” between thinking about the stuff we want to change and acting on it is the biggest killer of all resolutions.

  15. Kat
    Kat says:

    The way you phrase your goals is important. Penelope often talks about positive psychology and how hard transitioning change can be – it applies here too. So consider phrasing your goals positively (rather than negatively) and make the goals include the changes you need to make (rather than just what you want to stop doing.)

    E.g. instead of saying “I need to lose weight” or “I need to stop eating chocolate” you should say “I’m going to eat 2 pieces of fruit and 3 portions of vegetables every day” or “I’m going to go walking from 8-9pm every evening”.

  16. may
    may says:

    Just thinking.. somewhere, I read that the best gift parents can give their children is their mutual love for each other.

  17. David
    David says:

    Enhance your ability to stick to your New Years Resolution with healthywage, We pay obese Americans $100 to lose weight. The money comes from corporate sponsors. To qualify for the cash, users just have to weigh-in on the website once a week and achieve a healthy weight. We are a complement to users existing diets and an exciting way for users to make money while acheiving their New Years Resolutions and losing weight.

  18. Jamie Flinchbaugh
    Jamie Flinchbaugh says:

    Great post. I really love the point about getting the wording right. I think people are lazy, or at least lackadaisical about it. There is a big difference between generating a general feeling versus a very tangible image.

    I think you’ve gone beyond New Year’s Resolutions to true goal setting process. Personally, I think resolutions should be tossed aside. Because without all of this backing it up, you really have nothing. I wrote about it today on my blog here:

    • Ranjeet Kapoor
      Ranjeet Kapoor says:

      ….Penelope pointed right to start 2010 with good health. I think this is because in this fast life most of the time we don’t take care of our health. We think big but pay less attention for better health and good habits. To follow the advise of practicing ‘change agent’ for 21 days without fail, I would add that put the taste of awareness/mindfullness with this continuity…do with LOVE ;)
      Keep smiling!

  19. @leahalmeling
    @leahalmeling says:

    Last year was the first time I have ever actually kept a New Year’s resolution. It was to floss more. I started small, and I’m really proud that I actually did it! Now maybe this year I’ll take on something a little bigger but still attainable.

  20. Kari
    Kari says:

    I liked this post a lot. When I decided to really tackle a pretty big goal in my life last year, I started out writing a list of to do’s, as usual (I also love lists). Then, like a bolt out of the blue, I decided that this time, I’d make a list of phrases beginning with the words, “I want to…” It really helped me focus on what my motivations were for the changes I wanted to make. For example, I used to say, “This year, I am going to get organized” and then make a list of “first this, second, that…” etc. This time I said to myself, “Why do I think I need to be organized? How would it make me feel about myself If I were organized?” I started with my closet, and just free-associated a bunch of thoughts about how I felt about it – like how the clothes all over the floor were wrinkled and it made me feel less put together… which made me feel sloppy… which made me feel like people looked down on me… which makes me feel less confident in myself. So the phrase I came up with for that topic was “I want to feel put together, so I can feel confident.” I don’t know why, but this really worked for me – I have an organized closet, and I have a lot of other works in progress that I’ve been trying to accomplish for years. Not all the way there yet, but feel much more hopeful at the end of this year than I did at the end of last year!

  21. Cheryl
    Cheryl says:

    Penelope: I just started reading your blog a couple of months ago and am hooked. Please write more often!!! I have been through most of the archives and enjoy your perspective. I hope you have a Great 2010 . . lots better than 2009!

  22. Wayne Clayton
    Wayne Clayton says:

    My goal this year is to stop being as successful at what I do… I know sounds weird. I do social media marketing for a living. I do everything online…and thats where the rub is. I want to go out and have more REAL human interaction this year. I want online social marketing to become more in the flesh social marketing. It’s too easy to loose all contact with all your friends in life and just focus on your online friends. Ironically just thinking about meeting people in person again (one action step is I’m starting up a Social Media Marketing Meet-Up group in South Bend Indiana) makes me want to loose weight. Too many hours behind the monitor and snacking on Dorritos has taken it’s toll on my health.

    Your post spoke to me in many ways. Thanks for the quality writing. And I agree with one previous statement… you need to write more often.

  23. Miranda
    Miranda says:

    Thanks for this Penelope! I read it yesterday and it made me think that you just can’t be reminded too often to take little steps and watch as they add up. Then I went back to feeling bad because I really haven’t decided what 2010 is going to be about for me. After re-reading just now, I realized that I’ve known since July what 2010 is about and have been on the road to there since then and that’s pretty exciting.

  24. Winnie
    Winnie says:

    Starting small would be my first step, as far as resolutions I totally agree with you on not being big on them, but I do have to set some goals and first being making a fresh start with my writing. Thanks for your words.

  25. Bob
    Bob says:

    Bullet number 5 is the most important in my opinion, waiting til New Years is another way of stalling instead of just doing what it is you want to do. It’s not in any way easier to quit smoking the 31st than it is the 29th. Good advice.

  26. David Black
    David Black says:

    I totally agree with Bob. Why would you want to wait until New Year to try and improve your life. If you want to do something then you should just go ahead and do it.

    I live by the quote ‘Be proactive rather than reactive’. As in don’t wait for something to happen to do something beneficial. Instead be proactive and go and do it straight away.

    Just a thought… :)

  27. Jo-Ann Downey
    Jo-Ann Downey says:

    My 2010 intention is to joyfully, gracefully and easily breathe deeply each day. The backstory is that I want to focus more on “be-ing” and less on “do-ing.”

  28. Becky Miller
    Becky Miller says:

    This is one of my favorite New Year’s posts I’ve read. I love the illustration of driving to the gym parking lot every day. Getting to the gym is always the hardest part, especially in the cold. Once I’m there, of course I’m going to work out.

    I like what author Donald Miller said in his New Year’s post: “A story gives a goal a narrative context that forces you to engage and follow through. People who are in great shape and have their finances in order probably don't set goals to be in good shape or get their finances in order. They probably set goals of running a marathon or paying off their house. In other words, they think in narrative rather than goals. The goals get met in the journey of the story.”

  29. Steven Diamond
    Steven Diamond says:

    More important then learning to keep your New Years Resolutions is choosing ones that benefit the greater good of more then just yourself. When we share our lives, our hearts and open our souls to those in need around us – we find it easier to obtain the things we really need.
    Steven Diamond

  30. Kat Wilder
    Kat Wilder says:

    I’m not too big on resolutions, for exactly the reasons you outlined.

    Yes, cleaning the sink makes the house clean; that kind of thinking is transformational. And since you and I both value sex and orgasms, here’s another one – women, love your body. Once you do that, you’ll have more and better sex.

    That’s a worthy goal for 2010!

  31. E
    E says:

    I’m a newcomer to your blog but I’ve really enjoyed it so far. I completely agree with your thoughts regarding resolutions, so I decided to try out “drive to the gym at the same time every day”. I pull into the parking lot the other day, full of pride, to find that it’s closed… I guess you just have to appreciate the irony of life.

  32. Web Design Mississauga
    Web Design Mississauga says:

    Most important in my opinion is bullet number 5. The waiting till New Years is another way of stalling instead of just doing what it is you want to do. It’s not in any way easier to quit smoking the 31st than it is the 29th. Good advice

  33. Julia
    Julia says:

    Its so amazing that you posted this. I started working out in early Decemeber after 31 years of hating exercise so bad I can’t even remember how to spell it most times. And I have been doing it! 3-4 times a week and i’m starting to LOVE it.

    I started for health of course but also because I had this feeling that changing this small thing would help me change big things and here you are, double underlining my gut feeling. I love your blog so much I want to hug it until it can’t breathe.

  34. mike
    mike says:

    The thing with doing a New Years Resolution is that the whole thing becomes to much of a big deal. We should view the resolution as the end goal but in between this we should set ourselves smaller goals and take one goal at a time, this will make the whole process of getting to the end result more achievable. Lots of little chuncks one at a time.

  35. Hannes
    Hannes says:

    great article with many true things. i never have new year’s resolutions, i let the year come and see what happens. for me thats the best thing what i can do and so far it was positiv ^^

  36. Marsha Keeffer
    Marsha Keeffer says:

    Late to the party, but glad I came. This will help me a lot as I attack a few goals I want to accomplish bit-by-bit. The two best takeaways? The ‘for someone else’ bit and the importance of visualization. Thanks very much, Penelope.

  37. Rick
    Rick says:

    I rarely keep my new years resolutions, but I’ve found that the easiest ones to keep are the ones with specific goals.
    You’re right, saying “I need to go to the gym more” doesn’t help anyone. “More” can mean five more minutes this year than last.

    The easiest to keep are the ones you can quantify. Something like “I will read three books every month” or “I will update my blog twice a week.”

    The blog one is my resolution!

  38. Marquez van Hinten
    Marquez van Hinten says:

    Im not very good when it comes to keeping my promises and resolutions for the new year. Ive read ur blog with eyes wide open and it really made me think. Maybe I will make it this time.



  39. Barcelona Tickets
    Barcelona Tickets says:

    I definitely believe that New Year isn’t the only (or best) time to make life changing resolutions. Since I spend every summer on the coast I get back to real life some time at the beginning of September and treat that as my new year.

    However, I don’t limit myself and if I feel I need to make changes throughout the year I take action. As you say it is down to self discipline and not setting goals that are unrealistic.

  40. Chico Woo
    Chico Woo says:

    Just wanted to say that I like your blog and read it often and hope that you will have a great New Year.

    As for New Year’s resolution – I’m resolving to take one day at a time.

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