It’s that time of year again: time to come up with a New Year’s resolution. Setting a goal can be a great way to make positive changes in your life. However, actually carrying out those goals once the daily grind has stripped away your motivation is an entirely different story. By looking at what science has to say about goals, habits and happiness though, you can give yourself an edge when it comes to following through on your resolutions.

Break your big resolution into smaller goals and habits

Let’s say you want to be healthier this year. That’s a great resolution, but it’s very broad and a little overwhelming. Research has shown that pursuing concrete goals is a much more effective way to increase happiness than encouraging abstract goals. For instance, you might have more success with a goal such as losing five pounds, rather than something as broad as simply being healthier.

An article at Stanford News explains:

“The reason is that when you pursue concretely framed goals, your expectations of success are more likely to be met in reality. On the other hand, broad and abstract goals may bring about happiness’ dark side — unrealistic expectations.”

With a concrete goal, you know when you’ve successfully met it, and you can celebrate. With an abstract goal, it can be difficult to judge when you’ve accomplished your goal.

Additionally, clinically depressed people tend to have more abstract or generalized goals, while non-depressed people often have clearly-defined, concrete goals. Because generalized or abstract goals are more difficult to visualize and realize, personal motivation can be negatively affected. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Liverpool, this may maintain or exacerbate depression.

Change your habits to 
support your goals

Habits are the result of associative learning. When you’re learning a response, you engage the part of your brain that supports working memory and the intentional mind. This helps you make a decision that takes your intentions into account. If you continually make that same decision in the same context, a shift takes place. You engage the part of the brain that supports cue response associations without retaining information about the goal or outcome.

Eventually, your decision-making will dwindle. Your brain will begin to associate the cue with the response. This means that when you’re presented with the cue for a habit, you do what you always do without considering why. Habits can function almost outside awareness.

This does not, however, mean that habits can’t be changed. Disrupt your old habit, insert a new behavior and repeat it until it becomes a new habit. For example, to disrupt a junk food problem, stop buying it or put it in a new, harder-to-reach spot in the kitchen. Have a different, healthier snack or action to stave off the mid-afternoon munchies. It might take a while for it to become routine, since forming a new habit can take anywhere from 15 to 254 repetitions, but eventually it will become just as ingrained as your old, bad habit.

Achieve your goals in 2019

One of the biggest ways to help yourself is to make realistic goals. Even breaking your resolution into smaller goals won’t help if it’s nearly impossible, like paying off all of your debts or losing a hundred pounds in a year. Set a goal that you can actually meet. When you’ve met or surpassed it, congratulate yourself on a job well done and set another goal.

What are your New Year’s resolutions for 2019?