Going to Make a New Year’s Resolution? Consider These 5 Tips.

Forty-four percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, and I know I always do.  Now that I’m obsessed with habits, I’m more inclined to make resolutions than ever, in fact. If my happiness and habits research has convinced me of anything, it has convinced me that resolutions – made right – can make a huge difference in boosting happiness.

So how do you resolve well? This is trickier than it sounds. Here are some tips for making your resolutions as effective as possible. Remember, right now, you’re in the planning stage. Don’t feel like you have to do anything yet! Just start thinking about what would make 2015 a happier year.

1. Ask: “What would make me happier?”

It might be having more of something good – more fun with friends, more time for a hobby. It might be having less of something bad – less yelling at your kids, less regretting what you’ve eaten. It might be fixing something that doesn’t feel right – more time spent volunteering, more time doing something to strengthen a relationship. The more your life reflects your values, the happier you’ll be. That’s why I love habits–habits help me ensure that my life reflects my values.

2. Ask: “What is a concrete habit that would bring about change?”

One common problem is that people make abstract resolutions, which are hard to keep.  “Find more joy in life,” or “Enjoy now” are resolutions that are difficult to measure and therefore difficult to keep. Instead, look for a specific, measurable action that can become a habit. “Watch a classic movie every Sunday night“ or “Drink my coffee on my front steps every morning” are resolutions that will carry you toward those abstract goals.

3. Ask: “Am I a ‘yes’ resolver or a ‘no’ resolver?”

Some people resent negative resolutions. They dislike hearing “don’t” or “stop” or adding to their list of chores. If this describes you, try to find positive resolutions: “Take that woodworking class,” “Have lunch with a friend once a week.” Or maybe you respond well to “no.” That’s my situation. A lot of my resolutions are aimed at getting me to stop doing something or to do something I don’t really want to do. Don’t expect praise or appreciation. Follow the one-minute rule.

There’s no right way to make a resolution, but it’s important to know what works for you. As always, the secret is to know your own nature.

For instance, my sister is a “yes” resolver.  Last year, she decided that she wanted to stop eating french fries (her Kryptonite) and that, at least for french fries, she was an Abstainer, not a Moderator. I asked, “But how did you manage to say ‘no’ to yourself?”

She said, “I tell myself: Now I’m free from french fries.” She found the way to see this habit change as a “yes.”

4. Ask: “Am I starting small enough? Or big enough?”

Many people make super-ambitious resolutions and then drop them, feeling defeated, before January is over. We tend to over-estimate what we can do over a short time and under-estimate what we can do over a long time, if we make consistent, small steps. If you’re going to resolve to start exercising (one of the most popular resolutions), it might be too much to resolve to go to the gym for an hour every day before work. Start by going for a ten-minute walk at lunch or marching in place once a day during the commercial breaks in your favorite TV show. Little accomplishments provide energy for bigger challenges. Push yourself too hard and you may screech to a halt.

But the opposite of a profound truth is also true, and by contrast, some people do better when they start BIG. If they start small, they lose interest or get discouraged. For them, a big transformation generates an energy and excitement that helps to foster habits. Steve Jobs reflected, “I have a great respect for incremental improvement, and I’ve done that sort of thing in my life, but I’ve always been attracted to the more revolutionary changes. I don’t know why.”

There’s no right or wrong approach. What works for you–do you prefer to aim small or aim big?

5. Ask: “How am I going to hold myself accountable?”

For many people, accountability is the secret to sticking to resolutions, and there are many ways to hold yourself accountable. I keep my Resolutions Chart (if you’d like to see my chart, for inspiration, email me at grubin [at] gretchenrubin.com–just write “resolution chart” in the subject line).  Belonging to a group is a good way to hold yourself accountable, part of why AA and Weight Watchers are effective groups. (For a starter kit for starting a Better Than Before habits group, click here.) Accountability is one reason why #2 is so important. If your resolution is too vague, it’s hard to be held accountable. A resolution to “Eat healthier” is harder to track than “Eat salad for lunch three times a week.”

Special note to Obligers: Obligers, remember that external accountability is the key for you. It’s crucial. If you’re serious about wanting to keep a resolution, you must figure out a way to create external accountability.

Have you found any strategies that have helped you successfully keep resolutions in the past?


For more about keeping your resolutions, check out my book Better Than BeforeOrder now.

  • Pingback: NewsCenterd » Going to Make a New Year’s Resolution? Consider These 5 Tips.()

  • Guest

    Step 1 ASK:

    This has a grammatical shortcoming. Read it again slowly and you will see what I mean.

    • gretchenrubin


  • ladbrady

    1. Ask: “What would make me happier?”

    This has a grammatical error. Read it slowly and you will see what I mean.

  • ladbrady

    Under Step 2:

    “Watch a classic one movie every Sunday night“

    This is an error as well. Isn’t it?

    • gretchenrubin


  • Three is my golden number. I find that setting three challenging but achievable goals is more effective than making a whole list of everything you want to change for the new year 🙂 // Accountability is the biggest thing for me, which is why I’ve been sharing my resolutions with my readers and friends. Anyways, happy new year! And enjoy the rest of your holiday 🙂 -Audrey | Brunch at Audrey’s

  • Miracles For Her

    Personally, I don’t make new years resolutions. It’s just part of knowing me. If I want to do something or get something done I feel like I’m setting myself up for failure if I tell myself I can wait until the new year. If I’m ready, I need to do it now.

    That being said, I really like your number 4. Knowing myself: I need to ease into a habit. Start small, accomplish that and then use the momentum to keep going. If I start too big I’ll get overwhelmed and am much more likely to stall or give up. Thanks. Miracles For Her

    How to be Happy in Life

  • I think the why of resolutions is key. If we’re doing it because we think we ought to (or someone has told us) then we’re on a sticky wicket already. It’s best when it makes who we really are: values, passions.

    I really like resolutions that tie a bigger goal with smaller actions like getting fit to do a charity walk or bike ride. You’ve got a great motivation and accountability as well as ability to start small.

    All the best for 2015.

  • Mimi Gregor

    3 and 4 both resonate with me. I have to phrase the habit I want to change in a positive way. Not “I want to stop drinking”, but “I want to choose sparkling mineral water instead of alcohol”. Not “I want to give up refined carbs”, but “I want to eat a healthier diet”. Once I have phrased what my goal is in a positive way, I can then determine how to accomplish this goal. For me, this is best accomplished in steps. First, maybe instead of ordering something chocolate and decadent for dessert, ordering some cheese (usually on the appetizer menu) to share with my husband. Reaching for the Pellegrino instead of the Pinot Grigio. Buying organic instead of factory-farmed.

    With exercise, I have started out small, too. I used to just strength train three times a week. Then I started doing yoga on three other days. (The one day left, I can take off with a good conscience, or, if the weather is fine, I go on a hike in the woods.) Then, I started doing a few exercises first thing in the morning every day. (These only take about ten minutes tops.) If I had tried to do all of this at once, I would have quit, saying “that’s just too much!” But because these changes were over a period of time, it isn’t “too much”. It’s what I am doing to stay healthy and active for as long as I am on this earth.

  • AmandaG

    I can’t believe you’re not coming to your hometown of Kansas City. Boo.

  • Katy Bateson

    Very excited to hear you’re coming to the U.K! 🙂

    • Katy Bateson

      Sorry not sure how I attached the photo! Rookie mistake!

  • Gillian

    I want to make some changes in the new year but I am choosing to call them Intentions, rather than resolutions. Although, regardless of what I call them, I seldom succeed for more than a few weeks. Both changes revolve around Time.

    Intention #1 – Get up earlier so that there is more time in the day. This of course requires a companion intention – go to be earlier.

    Intention #2 – Make better use of my time – stop procrastinating and wasting time. The problem arises between tasks – it takes forever to psyche myself up to do something so I dribble away chunks of time achieving nothing. To try to address this, I want to use your technique of having a word/phrase for the year. My first thought is “Just Do It” but I refuse to run my life based on a corporate advertising slogan so I’m working on something like “Act! Implement! Do!” (AID).

    I’ve been gradually trying over the last few weeks to embed these intentions in my mind so that they become part of my psyche. Only limited success so far but that is the only way I will have any chance at success. Being accountable to others won’t do it for me – there isn’t anyone close to me who would hold me accountable (my husband tends to encourage me not to be so rigid). My upholder/questioner side has to do the work.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ve concluded that words really matter – that it’s very important to pick the vocabulary that resonates with you. So great idea to choose the language that feels most compelling.

  • Marian

    I enjoy making resolutions, mainly because this time of the year forces me to take a look at what I did in the last year and think about what to do in the next. I don’t keep most of my resolutions, but I do feel that every year has been an improvement on the last. One thing that I feel is missing here is the final question, step 6: Ask: what have you done well in the past year? We tend to focus a lot on our shortcomings and on the ways we should improve our lives, and devote little energy to acknowledging our achievements; at least, that’s how I am. So, this new year, I’m taking the extra step to acknowledge: I have almost completed my Master’s degree and I am only 23 years old. That’s big. I have lived in 8 countries. That’s big. I have communicated much more openly with my boyfriend about future plans and my needs. That’s definitely a big one because I am a resolute obliger :). I have unknowingly prevented a friend from committing suicide by simply being there for her when I didn’t even know she needed me. That’s huge. Take a moment to appreciate yourself. It counts far more than others appreciating you.

  • Stephanie Turner

    I agree with starting BIG! For years, I’d been looking for an after-school yoga class (I’m a teacher) but couldn’t find one near home. So I finally decided to become a certified yoga instructor and TEACH the class on my schedule! I took a 200-hour course during summer vacation. If I had resolved to do yoga by myself after school twice a week, I would have found a hundred excuses not to go. But as the teacher, I HAVE to go, so I do! Best of luck with your resolutions, everyone. 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      Wow, that’s terrific.

      • Stephanie Turner

        Aw, shucks, thanks!

  • Pingback: Mango White Bean Smoothie - Some the Wiser()

  • Help a Million

    Hi Gretchen. I enjoyed your thought provoking article. Ive found that resolutions are a bit like ideas, plans – not much good unless acted upon. cheers jeff