The Big Mistake That Prevents You From Making Real Progress on Resolutions

Think less about what you want to eliminate from your life, and more about what you can add.

Man and women checking watch and about to go for a run.

It’s the sad truth that no matter how many promises you make to yourself, your New Year’s resolution will probably fail. “I think the general problem with New Year’s resolutions is that most people lack preparation,” says Martin Oscarsson, a psychologist at Stockholm University who has studied resolutions. “I would imagine most people are at a New Year’s Eve party, and the topic comes up, and then they try to come up with something which they haven’t really thought about.”

If this sounds like you, or even if you’ve failed at a resolution after much preparation, consider this your official pardon from the guilt of failed resolutions past. As happiness expert Arthur C. Brooks wrote in The Atlantic last year, “If meeting self-improvement goals were so easy, we wouldn’t need to make resolutions in the first place — we would just change.”

So, resolutions are hard. That’s a given. But they are much much harder when you make one very common mistake: Giving up a bad habit. While this sounds counterintuitive (isn’t that the point of a resolution?!), it’s actually the key to making true personal change. Don’t give up bad habits — instead, add good ones.

In 2020, as a graduate student at Stockholm University, Oscarsson published a study that followed the efforts of more than 1,000 people attempting to keep resolutions during the year. After months of checking in with the participants, he and his colleagues found one key trait that most successful resolutions shared: They were more focused on adding or replacing behaviors than avoiding them.

In psychology, these two types of goals are known as “approach-oriented goals” and “avoidance-oriented goals,” respectively. A resolution to quit smoking, for instance, is avoidance-oriented. But an approach-oriented reframing of the same goal might focus instead on taking time throughout the day to enjoy chats with coworkers or to take breaks outdoors — maintaining the positive elements of a smoke break. These resolutions can mask the absence of the former bad habit.

It’s a strategy that works across the board. Regardless of whether resolutions focused on their health, careers, relationships, or something else entirely, Oscarsson’s participants were equally likely to succeed when they adopted an approach-oriented mindset. Fifty-nine percent of those who adopted this type of resolution ranked themselves as successful compared to 47 percent of those who adopted avoidance-oriented goals.

As with all good things, designing an approach-oriented resolution can take more work and planning than declaring to cut a bad habit cold turkey. But January is just one of 12 months, Oscarsson emphasizes. “My favorite thing about New Year’s resolutions is that we have a whole year to try to succeed,” he says.

Few studies on New Year’s resolutions exist, and few of those that do follow participants beyond a month or two. But many of Oscarsson’s participants who ultimately found success might not have considered themselves on track at the 1-, 3-, or even 6-month mark. It’s a good reminder that progress isn’t always linear. You don’t have to jump in immediately in the new year. Take time to refine your goals like you would at any other time of year, even if that means January is just your brainstorming and planning stage.

Successful approach-oriented resolutions are often also specific and measurable, Oscarsson says. His own 2022 resolution is to spend 150 hours on his bike (he tried for 200 hours last year, but came short — it even happens to the experts). Breaking down your resolution into multiple steps or a series of smaller goals can also be helpful, according to a study from the University of Bern in Switzerland. If your resolution is to run a half-marathon, start with a mile.

And the last, most important characteristic of a good resolution, Oscarsson says, is that it’s actually something you want to achieve. “I think we often formulate personal goals, and maybe New Year’s resolutions in particular, with other people and their expectations in mind,” he says. The simplest test? “Ask yourself whether it’s in line with what you value in life.”