New Year's resolutions have a habit of being broken more than any other goals. 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.
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."
If you're planning to learn a new language or unpack that ukulele in 2021, 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.
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.
If 2021 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.