How to Set Intentions, Not Resolutions, to Actually Achieve Your New Year’s Goals

Written by: Dr. Liz Slonena, Psy.D.

Do you have a goal that you wish to manifest in the New Year? Like focusing on your health and wellness? Or practicing this mindfulness stuff everyone talks about? How about getting a raise at your job? Kicking an unhelpful habit? Or perhaps spending more time with your loved ones?

Science indicates that one simple sentence may increase your chances of success at making healthy habits stick.

If you are serious about change and self-improvement, don’t make a New Year’s Resolution. As this dark year of 2020 comes to a close, it’s inspiring to welcome 2021 with new hope, optimism, and wellness wishes. Give yourself permission to let go of this old custom and implement this simple strategy backed by science to actually achieve your goals this new year.

New Year’s Resolutions Simply Don’t Stick

Studies indicate…

  • Less than 10% of Americans actually keep their New Year’s Resolutions year-round. 1
  • 80% of Resolutions dissolve by February.
  • Motivation is not the secret ingredient to health habits. 2, 3

The Empty Promise of Motivation

Scientists discovered that a powerful sentence was impactful enough to make healthy habits stick. And it had nothing to do with motivation.

An interesting study conducted in 2001 investigated different ways to increase exercise behaviors in two weeks.2    The study used 248 participants, that were divided into 3 groups.

One group was simply asked to track how often they exercised (aka, the control group).

The second group was given a motivational presentation and handouts on the benefits of exercise and also asked to track how often they exercised (aka, the motivation group).

The third group was given the same motivation material as the second group with instructions to record how often they exercised; however, they were also asked to complete an “implementation intention” plan that consisted of one sentence.

For example: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [day] at [certain time] in [place].”

The participants were then sent on their merry way… And the researchers were surprised at the study’s results.

The motivational presentation had no meaningful impact on exercise.

Here’s some shocking numbers: the first and second groups had between 35-38% of participants exercise at least once a week. There was no major difference in the control versus the motivational group. In sharp contrast, the third group with the intention statements had 91% of participants exercise at least once a week, which is more than double the rate of exercise.

This may give some a sigh of relief. You don’t have to muster willpower, magically increase your motivation, or litter your Instagram feed with Fitspo. In fact, when people think they lack motivation, what is really missing is clarity and commitment.  Physically writing down your wish can help you get crystal clear on what it is you want to change and commit to a path to make it actually happen.

Writing down a specific, realistic plan can transform a foggy wish into a clear action.

How to Make Clear Intentions to Achieve Your Goals

New healthy habits stick when you get simple and clear on your goal with a predetermined plan. Having an implementation intention makes your goal future oriented, positively focused, and actionable today. Here’s how to transform common resolutions into actionable intentions.

Go ahead and grab a pen and paper. Yes, right now. Let’s try this out in the moment. Here are some examples to help.

Step 1. Write down what you wish to change:

  • I should stop working so much.
  • I want to be healthier.
  • I should spend more time with my kids.
  • I want to start meditating.

Step 2. Ask yourself why you want to implement this change. Is there something you value that would support this change?

  • I value having fun.
  • I value my health and vitality.
  • I value the connection I have with loved ones.
  • I value my mental wellness.

Step 3. Now transform your wish into an intention by completing this sentence:

I will [SPECIFIC BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].

  • I will turn my laptop off at 5pm in my office.
  • I will exercise using YouTube workouts for 20 mins in my living room.
  • I will play soccer with my kids at 5pm for an hour in the backyard.
  • I will practice mindfulness for 5 minutes at 7am before work in my bedroom.

Pause, take a breath, and notice the difference.

This welcomes your new healthy habit a specific space and time to live in reality. The more concrete, the better.

Here are some other tips to make intentions even more powerful:

  1. Begin your day by physically writing down your intention.
  2. Keep your intention highly visible (laptop, wallet, or the fridge are great homes for your intention messages).
  3. Schedule your intention in your calendar.
  4. Add a pleasant alarm as an external cue and reminder.

The ultimate goal is to make the location and time so obvious that “future you” can easily and effortless implement this intention. Over time, your environment will cue your body and mind unconsciously to implement that new habit (similar to when you walk into the kitchen, you may suddenly feel hungry). The time and place will serve as a trigger to your behavior, not your willpower.

In sum, motivation quickly fizzles out and doesn’t lead to consistent long-term habits. To actually achieve your goals, you need a concrete plan to specify when and how you will implement them. And like any habit, what you practice grows stronger.

Want additional accountability? If you read these tips and want to dive deeper to live a more engaging, full life, you can see a qualified therapist at the CBT Counseling Center. We offer affordable, efficient, and evidence-based treatments to get you clear on your wellness goals. We can also teach you new ways to manage stress, anxiety, depression, and other health struggles to help you live a brighter life in these dark times. We can be contacted at any time by phone at (828) 350-1177 or via the online contact form that’s available on our website.

Research Citations:

  1. Norcross, J. C., Mrykalo, M. S., & Blagys, M. D. (2002). Auld lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self‐reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of clinical psychology58(4), 397-405.
  2. Milne, S., Orbell, S., & Sheeran, P. (2002). Combining motivational and volitional interventions to promote exercise participation: Protection motivation theory and implementation intentions. British journal of health psychology7(2), 163-184.
  3. Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta‐analysis of effects and processes. Advances in experimental social psychology38, 69-119.

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