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 2019, 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 2019 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 10-15 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.

12 Creative Ways to Spend Your FSA Money Before the Deadline

stockfour/iStock via Getty Images
stockfour/iStock via Getty Images

If you have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), chances are, time is running out for you to use that cash. Depending on your employer’s rules, if you don’t spend your FSA money by the end of the grace period, you potentially lose some of it. Lost cash is never a good thing.

For those unfamiliar, an FSA is an employer-sponsored spending account. You deposit pre-tax dollars into the account, and you can spend that money on a number of health care expenses. It’s kind of like a Health Savings Account (HSA), but with a few big differences—namely, your HSA funds roll over from year to year, so there’s no deadline to spend it all. With an FSA, though, most of your funds expire at the end of the year. Bummer.

The good news is: The law allows employers to roll $500 over into the new year and also offer a grace period of up to two and a half months to use that cash (March 15). Depending on your employer, you might not even have that long, though. The deadline is fast approaching for many account holders, so if you have to use your FSA money soon, here are a handful of creative ways to spend it.

1. Buy some new shades.

Head to the optometrist, get an eye prescription, then use your FSA funds to buy some new specs or shades. Contact lenses and solution are also covered.

You can also buy reading glasses with your FSA money, and you don’t even need a prescription.

2. Try acupuncture.

Scientists are divided on the efficacy of acupuncture, but some studies show it’s useful for treating chronic pain, arthritis, and even depression. If you’ve been curious about the treatment, now's a good time to try it: Your FSA money will cover acupuncture sessions in some cases. You can even buy an acupressure mat without a prescription.

If you’d rather go to a chiropractor, your FSA funds cover those visits, too.

3. Stock up on staples.

If you’re running low on standard over-the-counter meds, good news: Most of them are FSA-eligible. This includes headache medicine, pain relievers, antacids, heartburn meds, and anything else your heart (or other parts of your body) desires.

There’s one big caveat, though: Most of these require a prescription in order to be eligible, so you may have to make an appointment with your doctor first. The FSA store tells you which over-the-counter items require a prescription.

4. Treat your feet.

Give your feet a break with a pair of massaging gel shoe inserts. They’re FSA-eligible, along with a few other foot care products, including arch braces, toe cushions, and callus trimmers.

In some cases, foot massagers or circulators may be covered, too. For example, here’s one that’s available via the FSA store, no prescription necessary.

5. Get clear skin.

Yep—acne treatments, toner, and other skin care products are all eligible for FSA spending. Again, most of these require a prescription for reimbursement, but don’t let that deter you. Your doctor is familiar with the rules and you shouldn’t have trouble getting a prescription. And, as WageWorks points out, your prescription also lasts for a year. Check the rules of your FSA plan to see if you need a separate prescription for each item, or if you can include multiple products or drug categories on a single prescription.

While we’re on the topic of faces, lip balm is another great way to spend your FSA funds—and you don’t need a prescription for that. There’s also no prescription necessary for this vibrating face massager.

6. Fill your medicine cabinet.

If your medicine cabinet is getting bare, or you don’t have one to begin with, stock it with a handful of FSA-eligible items. Here are some items that don’t require a prescription:

You can also stock up on first aid kits. You don’t need a prescription to buy those, and many of them come with pain relievers and other medicine.

7. Make sure you’re covered in the bedroom.

Condoms are FSA-eligible, and so are pregnancy tests, monitors, and fertility kits. Female contraceptives are also covered when you have a prescription.

8. Prepare for your upcoming vacation.

If you have a vacation planned this year, use your FSA money to stock up on trip essentials. For example:

9. Get a better night’s sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, sleep aids are eligible, though you’ll need a prescription. If you want to try a sleep mask, many of them are eligible without a prescription. For example, there’s this relaxing sleep mask and this thermal eye mask.

For those nights you’re sleeping off a cold or flu, a vaporizer can make a big difference, and those are eligible, too (no prescription required). Bed warmers like this one are often covered, too.

Your FSA funds likely cover more than you realize, so if you have to use them up by the deadline, get creative. This list should help you get started, and many drugstores will tell you which items are FSA-eligible when you shop online.

10. Go to the dentist.

While basics like toothpaste and cosmetic procedures like whitening treatments aren’t FSA eligible, most of the expenses you incur at your dentist’s office are. That includes co-pays and deductibles as well as fees for cleanings, x-rays, fillings, and even the cost of braces. There are also some products you can buy over-the-counter without ever visiting the dentist. Some mouthguards that prevent you from grinding your teeth at night are eligible, as are cleaning solutions for retainers and dentures.

11. Try some new gadgets.

If you still have some extra cash to burn, it’s a great time to try some expensive high-tech devices that you’ve been curious about but might not otherwise want to splurge on. The list includes light therapy treatments for acne, vibrating nausea relief bands, electrical stimulation devices for chronic pain, cloud-connected stethoscopes, and smart thermometers.

12. Head to Amazon.

There are plenty of FSA-eligible items available on Amazon, including items for foot health, cold and allergy medication, eye care, and first-aid kits. Find out more details on how to spend your FSA money on Amazon here.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

5 Easier Ways to Water Your Christmas Tree

Artfoliophoto/iStock via Getty Images
Artfoliophoto/iStock via Getty Images

A decorated Christmas tree adds instant holiday cheer to any room—for a few days, at least. If you neglect to care for it, however, it doesn't take long for that tree to start dropping needles and dry up into a brittle, brown fire hazard. The key to keeping your tree looking healthy until the New Year is to water it every day. Of course, that comes with its own problems, like sap-covered clothing and sore knees. Here are some alternative methods for watering your Christmas tree that won't have you wishing for the end of the holiday season.

1. Rig a funnel and PVC pipe.

The worst part of watering a Christmas tree is crawling around on your hands and knees, but once you've set up this funnel rig, you can water it while standing up. As Eric Palonen demonstrates in the video above, all you need to do is stick a PVC pipe into the tree stand, attach a funnel to the other end with an elbow connector, and pour in the water.

2. Dig out a pool noodle.

Don't have a spare PVC pipe at home? A foam pool noodle works just as well as the receptacle for your funnel.

3. Disguise a DIY water dispenser as a present.

On Instructables, Rickyspears shares his step-by-step process for building a Christmas tree-watering rig. Using a bucket and plastic tube with brass fittings, you can create a water-siphoning system that automatically keeps your tree hydrated. And because a big bucket of water beneath the tree isn't the most festive sight, Rickyspears also tells you how to disguise it by hiding it in a box decorated with wrapping paper.

4. Use a wine bottle.

Still have some leftover wine bottles from Thanksgiving (or the weekend) lying around the house? Use one of them to water the base of your tree while keeping a safe distance between you and the sticky branches. (Though if you do get some sap on your hands, there are a few easy ways to get rid of it.)

5. Invest in an automated watering system.

DIY watering rigs are inexpensive, but if convenience is your main concern, it's hard to beat a product that was designed just for this purpose. The Christmas tree watering bag from Elf Logic senses when your tree needs water and replenishes it automatically. Plus, it hangs on a branch like an ornament, making it easy to tuck away.

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