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The science behind making your New Year’s resolutions stick

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Forty-five percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions every January, but a mere 8% are able to keep them. What starts out as an optimistic look on the upcoming year usually leaves you right back where you were before. It turns out, there is science behind willpower, motivation and sticking to your goals, and there’s hope for keeping your resolutions this year!

Some fascinating research in the field of willpower suggests that you can improve self-control the same way you would increase your fitness on the bike—simply by using it. Turns out, activating your willpower is the key to honing it. And of the two major traits scientists say predict future success—intelligence and willpower—the latter is the one you have the most control over.

There’s a reason self-control can feel hard though. Like the energy your muscles use to power your bike, your willpower can temporarily be depleted as you tap into your stock, says psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. In practical terms, this means don’t decide to bail on tomorrow’s ride after you’ve spent the day forcing yourself to avoid the donuts in the office pantry.

The good news is that, like a muscle, self-control gets stronger with practice. And now is the time to pay attention to it because the “fresh-start effect” is a legitimate thing.  University of Pennsylvania researcher Hengchen Dai, has studied the power of hitting the reset button in conjunction with important dates. “There’s this sense of, ‘I’ve failed in the past, but I can be a new person from here on out,’” Dai says.

Here’s how to make your resolutions stick this year:

1. Start on a meaningful date. It doesn’t have to be January 1; it could be your kid’s birthday or some other special day. “The transition point helps you leverage the natural feeling that you’re separated from your past,” Dai says.

2. Make resolutions measurable. “Ride 10 more miles each week” or “Follow a meal plan for three weeks out of each month” is easier to accomplish than “run more” or “lose weight.” And accomplishment breeds motivation.

3. Focus on one goal at a time. “Start with the easiest and concentrate on doing it well,” Baumeister says. Once you’ve successfully achieved the goal, move on to the next. “Achieving the first one will boost your willpower, giving you more strength to tackle future challenges.”

4. Cater to your willpower. Resist depleting your limited supply of self-control by keeping temptations at bay. If you’re trying to shed pounds, for instance, keep unhealthy foods out of the house. If you’re trying to increase your mileage, keep gear clean and accessible, and plan rides with friends so you won’t back out.

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