Are they even worth it? How to make and keep New Year’s resolutions

It’s almost time to say goodbye to 2018. An expert explains how to have 2019 be the year you stick with something.

The New Year's fireworks display in the Boston Harbor over Faneuil Hall. Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

At the end of every year, people find themselves reflecting on all they’ve done over the past 12 months and all they want to accomplish next. Of course, the tradition of breaking New Year’s resolutions is nearly as popular as the practice of making them. This begs the question: Is it even worthwhile to make them at all?

Ellen Hendriksen, a Boston University clinical assistant professor in psychology, thinks it can be, if you do it the right way.

Here are her pointers for drawing up New Year’s resolutions (or, really, goals in general) that you’ll actually stick to.

1. Be clear

Hendriksen, host of the “Savvy Psychologist” podcast and author of the 2018 book ”How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety,” said that one key to forming a resolution you won’t drop is actionable specificity.

“So instead of ‘Lose weight,’ you could say, ‘Get to the gym every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday,’ or, ‘Eat fewer than 25 grams of sugar a day,’ or something much more specific,” she explained. “So that when you’ve achieved it, you know you’ve achieved it, because we can always be healthier, we can always be happier, we can always be more organized, etcetera.”


Actionability is important, Hendriksen said, even if your resolutions are related to something more intangible, like thinking more positively or finding joy.

“OK, what would your life look like if you…found joy?” Hendriksen asked, and suggested thinking about the behavioral proponents of that goal. “‘I would take all my vacations days,’ ‘I would update my eharmony profile,’ ‘I would be planning a trip to the Caribbean.’ What would it look like if you had achieved that emotional state?”

2. Go ahead and bribe yourself

Hendriksen also highlighted the importance of a reward.

“People are not going to slog through doing something unpleasant or depriving themselves of something just for the sake of doing it. They need to get something out of it,” she said. “Sometimes that can be a lower number on the scale, sometimes that can be a higher number in your bank account.”

Another way to compensate yourself could be through “temptation bundling,” which Hendriksen described as “sticking a ‘should’ together with a ‘want.’” A few years back, a study out of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Harvard University’s Harvard Kennedy School used the term to explore the combining of a “should” behavior (exercising) with a “want” experience (enjoying compelling audiobooks). In your case, you could tell yourself that you can only have something you want, like a latte, if you do something less appealing that you should do, like apply for jobs.

3. Consider tweaking your timeframe

Hendriksen aligns her “New Year’s resolutions” with the academic calendar, so they’re New Year’s resolutions of a different sort.


“I think there’s nothing special about January 1,” she said. “We can embark on self-improvement projects anytime we want, but it is a tradition.”

4. Automate

“I’ve found that the resolutions that I do keep are the ones that I automate,” Hendriksen said. “I take as much brain power out of it as possible and make it as convenient as possible.”

For example, in the past, she’s linked a goal to exercise with a habit she already has: eating breakfast.

“I have breakfast every day, and so I try to exercise before that, and that has seemed to stick,” she said.

One method that works for some is an idea that’s credited to Jerry Seinfeld: The “Don’t break the chain” technique requires daily action, trying to do the new behavior you’re attempting to adopt without stopping. 

“You feel motivated because the stakes get higher as you rack up those days,” Hendriksen said.

“But on the other hand,” she countered, “a lot of people get caught up in the perfectionism and get into this all-or-nothing mentality. And so for people who, the first day they break that chain to say, ‘Oh…forget it, I give up,’ I would say to do the opposite: to allow yourself to be imperfect and to skip a day here and there. … Just start again. It’s OK.”