I have a couple of New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps you do. One of mine falls into the category of physical wellbeing and exercise, which research suggests is most popular of New Year’s resolution. The others is relational – also in the top five of resolutions alongside weight-loss, smoking cessation, and personal growth.

Sure, it’s a common meme that gyms are notoriously busy in January and ghost-towns by December, but should this stop you from making a resolution to get in shape or change your eating habits? And for that matter, is it true most people don’t succeed in achieving their new year’s goals? Well, it seems that is all depends. And statistically, there are a few things you can do to increase success.

As a researcher, I was compelled to read some recent academic studies on the topic. There are not as many as I suspected but two looked worth considering. One 2020 study of 1066 people from Sweden by Oscarsson et al. and another 2019 study from Switzerland covering 256 people by a Hochli et al. Here’s a quick breakdown of variables – because not all goals are equal – nor are environments.

Some resolution goals are classed as superordinate – meaning they are high and lofty. Other goals are classed as subordinate – smaller and specific. Both studies confirmed what other researchers had suggested; being, smaller and specific goals attract greater success. However, the research verdict was still out on rates of success if someone makes a big resolution that is broken up into smaller goals. Personally, I doubt most people take resolutions this seriously, strategically speaking. You could test this, though.

Take away: Set smaller goals. Consider the SMART goal setting method.

Aside from the size of your goal, another important factor which Oscarsson et al. (2020) looked at was how much support you get in achieving your goal. They looked at participants with no support, some support, and extended support. Support in this case could be classed as accountability, encouragement and follow-up. The researchers found that the amount of support matters, concluding that those with extended support stuck to their goals for longer than others, even when support came as simple as an email keeping you on track.

Take-away: Find or employ the support of others if you want to stick to your goal longer.

Another factor to consider is whether your goal is approach-oriented or avoidance-oriented. Approach orientation means moving toward or maintaining a habit like ‘going to the gym’ or ‘meditating 10 minutes per day’, while avoidance orientation involves moving away from or maintaining distance from an undesired stimulus or habit like ‘eat-less junk food’ or ‘quit smoking.’ The study of over a thousand people concluded that ‘approach-oriented goals were significantly more successful in sustaining their New Year’s resolutions compared to those with avoidance oriented goals.’

Take-away: This is a mindset thing and I offer this as a simple example: It’s better to approach healthy eating choices than avoid poor ones.

I’ll finish with this interesting fact: Some of the researchers concluded that regardless of support, goal size, or orientation mindset, all participants experienced a positive change in their lives to an extent, even if it was for a short-time.

Take-away: Make that resolution and get going! There is no shame in only lasting a few days, weeks or months. After all, we are all finite creatures and all things come to an end. Some change is better than none!

To summarise:

If you want to increase your New Year’s resolution success-rate make your goals smaller and specific, get support from others, and adjust your mindset towards approaching a new habit, not avoiding an old one.

Disclaimer: I didn’t spend weeks scouring the literature on this so feel free to check it yourself or challenge this. Also, like all academic studies, these two had listed limitations like participants volunteering to disclose and be tracked with their resolutions, so that all must be considered too.

Anyway, feel free to share this and/or pop your resolution in the comments. If you are a coach or therapist that helps people in this area, feel free to pop your business contact in the comments for others too.

Hope this helped!

David Tensen

#NewYearsResolutions #Research #goals #coaching #support #health


Höchli, B., Brügger, A., & Messner, C. (2019). Making New Year’s Resolutions that Stick: Exploring how Superordinate and Subordinate Goals Motivate Goal Pursuit. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 12(1), 30–52.doi:10.1111/aphw.12172

Oscarsson, M., Carlbring, P., Andersson, G., & Rozental, A. (2020). A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PLoS One, 15(12), e0234097.