Are Your New Year's Resolutions Fading? Try a Different Approach.

Tying personal commitments (like getting more exercise) to goals that benefit the planet create multiple reasons to push ahead.

Carla Cantor
January 25, 2020

You‘re a month into the new year. How are those resolutions coming along? If your resolve to eat less, exercise more or save money is beginning to wane, you’re not alone.  

Studies show that most New Year's resolutions are doomed to fail. Nearly half of us make them, but only about 25 percent of people actually stay committed to their resolutions after just 30 days. Fewer than 10 percent accomplish them.

“No matter how good your intentions are, resolutions aren’t effective because behavior change is complicated and difficult to achieve,” said Donald Edmondson, associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia’s Irving Medical Center. “2020 starts looking a lot like 2019 as stress, obligations and everyday life intervene, and resolutions fall by the wayside.”

Edmondson is part of a team at the medical center supported by the National Institutes of Health that is working to identify ways in which people can make lasting behavior changes. In a recent conversation, Edmondson pointed to how behavioral scientists are discovering that personal goals may be more easily achieved if they are linked to rewards that go beyond self-interest, producing what he called “co-benefits.” It’s an idea that he’s excited about.  

Headshot of Caucasian man with short brown hair and beard smiling with bookcases behind him

Indeed, studies have shown that specific goals are easier to reach than vague, abstract ones. (I’ll walk 20 minutes a day vs. I’ll get more exercise this year.) But connecting concrete “subordinate” goals—eat healthier, buy less—to “superordinate” goals, such as working to mitigate climate change, can ratchet up performance, Edmondson said.  

Let’s say, you decide this year you want to start biking to lose weight. Cycling helps with weight loss, lowers stress and has a positive impact on your heart’s health, which are all great goals. But instead of signing up for a spin class a 15-minute drive away, why not use your bike (in place of your car) to regularly run errands around town to reduce your carbon footprint?  

“Now, pursuing your goal to lose weight is not just about you and your willpower,” Edmondson said. “It’s also tackling a bigger problem in accordance with higher values and beliefs, and connects you with the support of others in the community, and around the world, who are also fighting climate change.”

It’s not surprising that tying resolutions to deep-seated values helps people make lasting change, Edmundson said. One of the most effective techniques used by health care workers to spark behavior change is motivational interviewing, which is rooted in the theory that change happens when people identify their core motivations, and how their current behaviors may be misaligned with them.  

“People come to see that poor diet and sedentary behavior are inconsistent with their goals for playing in the yard with their grandchildren, or finally finishing their novel in retirement,” said Edmondson, who is on the leadership team of the National Institutes of Health’s Science of Behavior Change Program.

Superordinate goals, which social psychologists consider the highest level of the goal hierarchy, refer to idealized conceptualizations of one’s self, one’s relationship or the society one is part of. When combined with specific wants they can help people achieve something that has previously been beyond their reach.

So next year when New Year’s Eve rolls around, should you decide to make resolutions, consider not only what you want to achieve but also why it is important.

 “When goals fit together, people are more likely to stay committed,“ Edmondson said. “You’ve created multiple reasons for pushing a head.”