10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Stick to Your New Year's Resolutions

iStock.com/Soulmemoria
iStock.com/Soulmemoria

New Year's resolutions have a habit of being broken more than any other goals. This year, impress your friends and show yourself resolved to follow through with these 10 scientifically-proven ways to honor your commitments to self-improvement and healthy change.

1. To feel more fulfilled, volunteer.

Volunteers serving food to the needy
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People who volunteer as little as two hours each week report greater happiness, sense of purpose, and increased health. One study in Social Science and Medicine suggests that volunteering might contribute to happiness levels "by increasing empathic emotions, shifting aspirations," and helping people to re-evaluate their own life situations. Moreover, volunteering is protective in older adults against cognitive and physical decline.

2. To increase discipline, reduce "activation effort."

Women playing music together at home
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If you're planning to learn a new language or unpack that ukulele in 2020, you might want to take advantage of "happiness researcher" Shawn Achor's "20 second rule." The author of The Happiness Advantage discovered that just 20 extra seconds of "activation effort"—the energy it takes to get started—is enough to cause most people not to do an activity. He found that if he reduced the time it takes to do something new by 20 seconds, such as moving the guitar next to the couch instead of hiding it away in the closet, he was more likely to do it every day.

3. To be more creative, make art when you're happy.

Couple paints outdoors
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Contrary to the popular notion that tortured artists make the best art, a study in the journal Nature found a link between increased creativity and positive emotion. Lead author Malinda McPherson found that "emotion has a huge effect on the way our brains can be creative," she told The Atlantic. Her research with jazz musicians found that positive emotion was related to a "deeper state of creative flow."

4. To be more productive, take more breaks.

Close up of alarm clock with message break time on wooden tabletop
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If 2020 is the year you aim to become more productive, the best thing you can do for yourself is to take more breaks. That’s right, do less to do more. A study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that frequent, short breaks that begin as early as a couple of hours after you begin work are most effective at refreshing employees. Overwork leads to exhaustion and an increase in stress hormones, which can create cycles of burnout.

5. To experience greater happiness, travel more.

Tourist visiting Spain
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Research shows we are happier when we spend our money on experiences and travel versus obtaining material things. Don’t forget the axiom, you can’t take it with you when you die … People’s greatest regrets at the end of their lives tend to be the things they did not do. A study in Psychological Science, in which participants were fed chocolates, found that we tend to focus most potently on the "last" of an experience, so end your vacations on a high note.

6. To quit smoking, don't go at it alone.

A woman breaks a cigarette in half.
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While there is an undeniable physical addiction to break with smoking, the National Institutes of Health has found that smoking cessation counseling programs and/or cognitive behavioral therapy are the most effective way to ensure you can quit. Of course, nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), which may include weaning off cigarettes through nicotine gum, nasal sprays, patches, or lozenges, improves quit rates by as much as 50 to 70 percent over no NRT therapy, so the two methods together may give you mega quitting power.

7. To lose weight, stop focusing on weight.

Woman jogging up stairs.
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Focusing on how much you weigh can defeat the process of trying to lose weight, according to neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt, author of Why Diets Make Us Fat. She asserts that our brains control our body weight at a "set point" within 10 to 15 pounds, because the brain is hardwired for survival. The brain perceives diets as a threat to survival and increases stress hormones, which are also linked to increased weight gain.

Aamodt suggests concentrating on a slow and steady regime of regular exercise, good food choices, and stress reduction instead. But don’t rely upon exercise alone. Try mindful eating—pay careful attention to your feelings and attitudes about food and choose opportunities to give your body what it needs versus what it craves.

8. To save more money, restrict your access.

A piggy bank
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When you make it harder to take out money, you save more. According to a study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, participants who committed to a restricted access savings account, versus a control group that did not, saved more money than the control. You can set up a savings account that penalizes you for taking out money over a certain dollar amount or more than a specified number of times per month. You could also take a set chunk of savings and invest it in a Certificate of Deposit (CD), which has a fixed investment period of usually several years, and a fixed interest rate, so you’re guaranteed not to lose any money.

9. To form new habits, give them time to stick.

A calendar
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Popular science has erroneously spread the belief that all it takes to forge a new habit is about one month of consistent activity. A British researcher found that, in fact, it’s closer to 66 days. Luckily, you can miss a day in there, so long as you lay out a plan in advance that sets out concrete actions you can take on a daily basis, and do not feel pressured to "perform."

10. Choose a resolution that doesn't require willpower.

Young woman resisting chocolate bar
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The secret to successfully following through on any of these resolutions is to start with those that don’t require willpower. A body of research has found that when people must exert extreme willpower, a function of the prefrontal cortex, it exhausts other functions such as mental endurance and the will to follow through. Willpower is a mental muscle that must be trained, so consider choosing a resolution that adds something to your life (such as joining a book club or making more homemade smoothies), rather than taking away (such as cutting out sugar or drinking all at once). Or, make strengthening your willpower your resolution.

This story originally ran in 2016.

The ChopBox Smart Cutting Board Has a Food Scale, Timer, and Knife Sharper Built Right Into It

ChopBox
ChopBox

When it comes to furnishing your kitchen with all of the appliances necessary to cook night in and night out, you’ll probably find yourself running out of counter space in a hurry. The ChopBox, which is available on Indiegogo and dubs itself “The World’s First Smart Cutting Board,” looks to fix that by cramming a bunch of kitchen necessities right into one cutting board.

In addition to giving you a knife-resistant bamboo surface to slice and dice on, the ChopBox features a built-in digital scale that weighs up to 6.6 pounds of food, a nine-hour kitchen timer, and two knife sharpeners. It also sports a groove on its surface to catch any liquid runoff that may be produced by the food and has a second pull-out cutting board that doubles as a serving tray.

There’s a 254nm UVC light featured on the board, which the company says “is guaranteed to kill 99.99% of germs and bacteria" after a minute of exposure. If you’re more of a traditionalist when it comes to cleanliness, the ChopBox is completely waterproof (but not dishwasher-safe) so you can wash and scrub to your heart’s content without worry. 

According to the company, a single one-hour charge will give you 30 days of battery life, and can be recharged through a Micro USB port.

The ChopBox reached its $10,000 crowdfunding goal just 10 minutes after launching its campaign, but you can still contribute at different tiers. Once it’s officially released, the ChopBox will retail for $200, but you can get one for $100 if you pledge now. You can purchase the ChopBox on Indiegogo here.

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7 Pieces of Reading Advice From History’s Greatest Minds

When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
Lucien Aigner/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If there’s one thing that unites philosophers, writers, politicians, and scientists across time and distance, it’s the belief that reading can broaden your worldview and strengthen your intellect better than just about any other activity. When it comes to choosing what to read and how to go about it, however, opinions start to diverge. From Virginia Woolf’s affinity for wandering secondhand bookstores to Theodore Roosevelt’s rejection of a definitive “best books” list, here are seven pieces of reading advice to help you build an impressive to-be-read (TBR) pile.

1. Read books from eras past // Albert Einstein

albert einstein at home circa 1925
Albert Einstein poses at home in 1925 with a mix of old and new books.
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Keeping up with current events and the latest buzz-worthy book from the bestseller list is no small feat, but Albert Einstein thought it was vital to leave some room for older works, too. Otherwise, you’d be “completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of [your] times,” he wrote in a 1952 journal article [PDF].

“Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses,” he wrote.

2. Don’t jump too quickly from book to book // Seneca

seneca the younger
Seneca the Younger, ready to turn that unwavering gaze on a new book.
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Seneca the Younger, a first-century Roman Stoic philosopher and trusted advisor of Emperor Nero, believed that reading too wide a variety in too short a time would keep the teachings from leaving a lasting impression on you. “You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind,” he wrote in a letter to Roman writer Lucilius.

If you’re wishing there were a good metaphor to illustrate this concept, take your pick from these gems, courtesy of Seneca himself:

“Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong. There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.”

3. Shop at secondhand bookstores // Virginia Woolf

virginia woolf
Virginia Woolf wishing she were in a bookstore.
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In her essay “Street Haunting,” Virginia Woolf described the merits of shopping in secondhand bookstores, where the works “have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

According to Woolf, browsing through used books gives you the chance to stumble upon something that wouldn’t have risen to the attention of librarians and booksellers, who are often much more selective in curating their collections than secondhand bookstore owners. To give us an example, she imagined coming across the shabby, self-published account of “a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it.”

“In this random miscellaneous company,” she wrote, “we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.”

4. You can skip outdated scientific works, but not old literature // Edward Bulwer-Lytton

edward bulwer-lytton
An 1831 portrait of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, smug at the thought of people reading his novels for centuries to come.
The Print Collector/Getty Images

Though his novels were immensely popular during his lifetime, 19th-century British novelist and Parliamentarian Edward Bulwer-Lytton is now mainly known for coining the phrase It was a dark and stormy night, the opening line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. It’s a little ironic that Bulwer-Lytton’s books aren’t very widely read today, because he himself was a firm believer in the value of reading old literature.

“In science, read, by preference, the newest works; in literature, the oldest,” he wrote in his 1863 essay collection, Caxtoniana. “The classic literature is always modern. New books revive and redecorate old ideas; old books suggest and invigorate new ideas.”

To Bulwer-Lytton, fiction couldn't ever be obsolete, because it contained timeless themes about human nature and society that came back around in contemporary works; in other words, you can’t disprove fiction. You can, however, disprove scientific theories, so Bulwer-Lytton thought it best to stick to the latest works in that field. (That said, since scientists use previous studies to inform their work, you can still learn a ton about certain schools of thought by delving into debunked ideas—plus, it’s often really entertaining to see what people used to believe.) 

5. Check out authors’ reading lists for book recommendations // Mortimer J. Adler

mortimer j. adler in 1983
Mortimer J. Adler in 1983, happy to read the favorite works of his favorite authors.
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In his 1940 guide How to Read a Book, American philosopher Mortimer J. Adler talked about the importance of choosing books that other authors consider worth reading. “The great authors were great readers,” he explained, “and one way to understand them is to read the books they read.”

Adler went on to clarify that this would probably matter most in the philosophy field, “because philosophers are great readers of each other,” and it’s easier to grasp a concept if you also know what inspired it. While you don’t necessarily have to read everything a novelist has read in order to fully understand their own work, it’s still a good way to get quality book recommendations from a trusted source. If your favorite author mentions a certain novel that really made an impression on them, there’s a pretty good chance you’d enjoy it, too.

6. Reading so-called guilty pleasures is better than reading nothing // Mary Wollstonecraft

mary wollstonecraft in 1797
Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, apparently demonstrating that a book with blank pages is worth even less than a novel.
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To the 18th-century writer, philosopher, and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, just about all novels fell into the category of “guilty pleasures” (though she didn’t call them that). In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she disparaged the “stupid novelists, who, knowing little of human nature, work up stale tales, and describe meretricious scenes, all retailed in a sentimental jargon, which equally tend to corrupt the taste and draw the heart aside from its daily duties.”

If her judgment seems unnecessarily harsh, it’s probably because it’s taken out of its historical context. Wollstonecraft definitely wasn’t the only one who considered novels to be low-quality reading material compared to works of history and philosophy, and she was also indirectly criticizing society for preventing women from seeking more intellectual pursuits. If 21st-century women were confined to watching unrealistic, highly edited dating shows and frowned upon for trying to see 2019’s Parasite or the latest Ken Burns documentary, we might sound a little bitter, too.

Regardless, Wollstonecraft still admitted that even guilty pleasures can help expand your worldview. “Any kind of reading I think better than leaving a blank still a blank, because the mind must receive a degree of enlargement, and obtain a little strength by a slight exertion of its thinking powers,” she wrote. In other words, go forth and enjoy your beach read.

7. You get to make the final decision on how, what, and when to read // Theodore Roosevelt

theodore roosevelt in office in 1905
Theodore Roosevelt pauses for a quick photo before getting back to his book in 1905.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Theodore Roosevelt might have lived his own life in an exceptionally regimented fashion, but his outlook on reading was surprisingly free-spirited. Apart from being a staunch proponent of finding at least a few minutes to read every single day—and starting young—he thought that most of the details should be left up to the individual.

“The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be,” he wrote in his autobiography, and rejected the idea that there’s a definitive “best books” list that everyone should abide by. Instead, Roosevelt recommended choosing books on subjects that interest you and letting your mood guide you to your next great read. He also wasn’t one to roll his eyes at a happy ending, explaining that “there are enough horror and grimness and sordid squalor in real life with which an active man has to grapple.”

In short, Roosevelt would probably advise you to see what Seneca, Albert Einstein, Mary Wollstonecraft, and other great minds had to say about reading, and then make your own decisions in the end.