Liberty Vittert: Got a resolution for the New Year? Here's a statistician's advice on how to keep it

Research shows that making broad sweeping resolutions simply doesn’t work, but don’t despair

New Year’s resolutions have served as the bane of my existence for some time now.  Thankfully, I am getting old enough to mostly forget the ones I made the previous year and not feel quite as bad about myself.

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I inevitably never accomplish them and fortunately or unfortunately, I am not alone. Over 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail by February, and almost 95 percent will bite the dust by March 1.

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So does this mean that I should just give up and not make resolutions at all?

Well, considering that one of my resolutions this year is to be more positive, I wouldn’t be doing a very good job of it if I decided to skip those resolutions this year.  And neither should you.

If your resolution is to read more books, which given our information above, should be to read one book in January, then try getting a buddy to do it with you.

Here’s the problem, our resolutions are way too broad. With the top resolutions being “Save money” (50 percent), “Lose weight” (45 percent), “have more sex” (25 percent), “Travel more” (24 percent), and  “read more books”(23 percent), it is almost impossible to succeed for one reason: these resolutions are too broad. What does “save money” really mean? Is that $100, or $1,000 or $10,000? And how do you save it? By eating out less, by shopping less or working more?

Research shows that making broad sweeping resolutions, simply doesn’t work, but don’t despair. What the research does show is that by making very specific resolutions, or rather, goals, people have a significantly increased chance of succeeding.

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So, how does that work? Well, instead of saying you are going to lose weight, you would say you want to lose 50 lbs. Or instead of saying you want to have more sex, you would say you want to have sex at least 3 times per week. This greatly increases your chance at a successful resolution.

Further to that, those chances of success increase even more if the goals are small. That doesn’t mean you can’t move the goal post once you achieve that goal, and keep going, but you move that goalpost by small increments.

So instead of saying you want to lose 50 pounds, you would say you want to lose 5 pounds. Then when you lose 5 pounds, you would say you want to lose 5 pounds more and shift the goal post each time you lose those 5 pesky pounds. And losing 5 pounds doesn’t sound all that hard right? I mean, come on, if you work out and intermittent fast for two days you can do that. Resolution achieved!  (P.S. Believe me, I know the first 5 pounds are the easy ones and the rest are like climbing Mount Everest, but in the vein of my thinking positive resolution, I’m saying go for it).

Now, the only other big tip that I could find serious and significant statistical research on that will help you succeed in your New Year’s resolution is the buddy system.

Now, when it comes to a resolution like having more sex, that is pretty much a given, but some of the others have a bit more leeway.

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If your resolution is to read more books, which given our information above, should be to read one book in January, then try getting a buddy to do it with you. You don’t even need to read the same book, but when you are held accountable by someone it greatly increases the chances of success.

But, on a personal note, make sure it isn’t too good of a friend, or you’ll end up calling each other on January 30th and just getting together for a few drinks to laugh over the fact that you never got around to reading that thing.

The ancient Babylonians are said to have been the first people to make New Year’s resolutions some 4,000 years ago. Who are we to say we should stop this long-held tradition?

Bottom line: Resolutions are a chance to move forward with some positive change in your life but if you’re going to do it be one of the people that succeeds. Make a specific resolution, make it a small resolution and if possible, get a buddy (but not too good of a buddy!) to do it with you.

Liberty Vittert is a professor of the Practice of Data Science at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis and an ambassador for the Royal Statistical Society. Follow her on Twitter @libertyvittert.

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