Goals and Habits: A Scientific Take on New Year’s Resolutions


By Gesa Junge, PhD

Happy New Year! Did you make any New Year’s Resolutions? Are they exactly the same ones as last year? Maybe science can help you actually keep them this year (so you can make new ones for 2018).

Giving up on New Year’s Resolutions is incredibly common. Statistics suggest that about half of us make New Year’s Resolution, but less than 10% keep them. Still, there are some ways that psychologists, behavioral scientists and even economists suggest can help you actually make some lasting changes.

Setting the right goals is an important first step. There is a whole TED article on the science behind goal-setting, but the key issues are to pick a meaningful goal, and figuring out exactly why it is so important to you to make this change in order to stay motivated. Also, goals need to strike a balance between too easy and too hard – research from the 1980s shows that more difficult goals can make you work harder. Similarly, specific goals lead to better outcomes than vague and generic goals, probably because it is easier to measure success.

But realistically, in order to make long-term changes, you need to change your habits. Neurologists distinguish between goal-oriented and habitual actions, and according to a 2006 study, almost half of our behavior is habitual. Routines allow our brains to function more efficiently. This makes sense – if we had to focus on all the little actions that are required to for everyday things like making a cup of tea or taking the subway to work, that would be incredibly exhausting.

So a lot of processes can become automated, often even without you noticing. Studies show that rodents trained to find a food reward in the left arm of a T-maze will quickly get into the habit of running straight down to the left arm even if the reward is no longer there. The basal ganglia are thought to play a key role in habit formation, although there is still some controversy around which brain regions are specifically responsible for habit formation. NIH researchers found that, on a molecular level, the endocannabinoid system plays a role. Endocannabinoids are endogenous signalling molecules that stimulate activity via cannabinoid receptors, and mutations in the CB1 cannabinoid receptor prevented mice from forming habits in a lever-press test for a sucrose reward.

As we probably all know habits can be pretty difficult to change. Researchers at MIT trained rats to turn left for chocolate or right for sugar water in a T-maze, depending on which one of two audio signals they received. If the rats are later given chocolate milk mixed with enough lithium chloride to make them nauseous, they will still follow the audio cue to the left (even if they did not always drink the milk), indicating the behavior had become habitual. However, this behavior was lost when the researchers interfered with the infralimbic cortex, and the rats soon started habitually turning right for the sugar water, regardless of the sound cue. But once this new habit was broken (again by interfering with the infralimbic cortex), the animals reverted back to the original habit of going left or right depending on the sound cue. This suggests that habits are really replaced as opposed to lost, and that they can come back, which would explain why it is a) quite hard to break a habit in the first place and b) not to fall back into old habits later.

So a good strategy might be to change or replace habits rather than trying to get rid of them completely. In order to achieve this, there are various commitment devices, that is, measures that make you do the things you would otherwise probably not feel like doing. There is a very interesting Slate article that gives more examples, but one that sounds particularly effective is a website called StikK, founded by behavioral economists from Yale. Here, you can formulate a commitment and put money on the line which, if you don’t reach your goal, is donated to a charity, person or – probably most effective – an anti-charity. An anti-charity is a cause you truly despise (think political parties, lobbying groups, sports teams…).

Another interesting tool is “temptation bundling”, essentially combining activities you like to do with activities you know you should do but don’t particularly enjoy, e.g. only binge-watching Netflix while ironing or cleaning the house. This was evaluated in a study at the University of Pennsylvania that showed that allowing people to only listen to engaging audio books at the gym (by means of a locked-away iPod) caused them to spend more time at the gym than control groups. Unfortunately, all the effects were lost after Thanksgiving break, but November is a while away, so maybe it would be worth a try.

So it may take some effort, but hopefully you can find a way to stick to your resolutions longer than last year. Or at least past Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day which apparently is January 17th. Good luck, and all the best for 2017!