New year’s resolutions: the empiricist’s guide

Happy New Year’s… Resolution!

Like so many of us, perhaps you are taking the occasion of another flip of the calendar to set some personal goals for the coming year. Lose weight. Exercise regularly. Read more. Procrastinate less. Earn a promotion. Be more positive.

But achieving a better you, as most can attest, is no simple business.

According to Nidhi Agrawal, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, the key to resolution keeping might just be resolution making.

“We’ve learned that it is important to distinguish the why and the how of your resolutions,” says Agrawal, whose research in consumer behavior has frequently explored the mechanics of willpower, or why we behave in/against our own best interests. “It’s important to have a clear, big-picture reason for the goals that you set. And the more concrete, specific, routinized you make them, the more success you will have.”

So rather than simply establish a goal of losing some weight, for instance, define how much you want to lose, and identify why you want to lose it. Maybe there’s a wedding coming up. Or you want to fit in your favorite old pair of jeans. Or you want to be around longer for your kids.

“You won’t have the motivation to achieve these difficult goals unless they are linked to something that is deeply important to you,” Agrawal says. “Because, when you are having trouble sticking to your rules, you’re going to ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ And if that answer is not compelling, then you’re likely going to falter.”

Setting specific rules can help. Instead of trying to “eat more healthfully,” enact some concrete dietary regulations. Maybe eat only salad for one meal a day, for instance. Or get even more precise: No creamy dressing. Hold the croutons.

“When you establish specific rules, you know whether you are executing on the goal,” Agrawal continues. “And once those rules become routine, decisions become more automatic and temptation becomes easier to resist. So every time you face a decision—like considering a restaurant menu—you won’t start evoking all sorts of tradeoffs. What fits my rules? You want to be able to execute almost robotically.”

Agrawal emphasizes that both the why and the how of resolutions are equally important, but often conflated, at their own peril. “We make a resolution like ‘I want to live more healthy’—my why—‘so I will eat healthy’—my how. Now what we have is a compromise and a weak proposition (everyone wants to be healthier). A vague path to an ambiguous objective.

“Instead, establish what it is that you are looking to achieve with your resolution. Find a little more thoughtful why and a much more specific, concrete, routinized how.”