Ever failed at making New Year’s resolutions? This year, do things a bit differently. Learn the science behind sticking to your goals.

Without fail, the Internet buzzes every new year with tips on how to achieve your goals or successfully adopt new habits. No matter where you turn, you’re bombarded with articles that push you to make changes to become a better version of yourself, once and for all. This will be the year you bridge the gap between your dreams and reality.

Yeah, right. You know from experience you won’t, because you’ve failed year after year.

Every year seems to start off strong. For a while, it’s going great! You cross out gym days on your calendar left and right and have started preaching the gospel of healthy living to your colleagues. You’re optimistic and high on green kale smoothies.

So what happens when you wake up one February morning and suddenly realize you’ve forgone your whole healthy routine? You didn’t even notice when it happened. Everything sort of melted away.

But that’s not really what happened. In truth, you lost your focus and forgot to reclaim it again. Your default mechanism kicked in and inertia set you off track. Don’t worry; you’re not alone. This happens to everyone.

We’ve all failed at making New Year’s resolutions. Some of us have failed so miserably, we don’t even bother to make them anymore. But now, you can actually use science to help you succeed.

The good news is that you’ve identified the culprit, so now you can fix your resolution problem — and actually stick to them. But be warned, this is not a quick fix. No pain, no gain.

Lucky for you, the effort is only mental. You just need to work on your focus. Here are a few ways to do that:

Success starts with inspiration

Look for daily inspiration that will keep you on track and focused. Finding that something that will keep you going can be the tricky part; it must be attractive, motivating and inspiring.

When I wanted to get fit and lose weight, for example, I set up a Tumblr account. I posted photos that motivated me and followed inspirational fitness blogs. The photos, recipes and fitness tips helped me get where I needed to be. Thanks to my Tumblr, fitness is now my middle name.

Focus on bottom-up and bottom-down attention

In his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Goleman explains that attention is like a muscle you need to use and practice every day. (Click here to Tweet this thought.) Goleman wisely explains that there are two types of attention we need to focus on: bottom-up and top-down.

Bottom-up is the usual driver and defaulter. It likes least resistance and inertia. It’s reflexive and impulsive. It’s probably why you bought that iPhone 5 when your 4s was perfectly fine.

Top-down is analytical, deliberate and conscious. It’s your willpower. It’s also damn tiring to keep. It pretty much constitutes the basic difference between professionals and amateurs.

Now that you’ve learned about these subtle aspects, you’ll be able to discern what’s behind a particular craving. Let’s take shopping and saving money, for instance. It’ll be easy as pie to tell whether you really need a product or just have some vague image of how happy it will make you. If it’s the latter, reconsider before making your decision. Instead of an impulsive choice, make a conscious one.

Don’t blame your brain; train it

Our brain’s amygdala is built to detect immediate threats. This organ alarms us when there’s a fire or when a baby suddenly starts crying. But it won’t communicate “Condition Red!” when you’re faced with another brownie or yet another cigarette. Our brain doesn’t react to these situations in the way it does to sudden, eminent threats — even if that brownie or cigarette is a serious threat to your health.

Instead, you need to remind yourself of your ultimate end goal. Focus your attention. Your body won’t automatically take action without willpower.

For example, try Jerry Seinfeld’s method for success: do something every day that aligns with your resolution, even for just 10 minutes. Check off your calendar every single day you complete the task. And don’t break the chain. This programs your body to work towards your goal every single day.

Making resolutions is the easy part. At the start, you’ll feel inspired and renewed.

But it’s your focus that will help you keep those resolutions. Which ones will you keep?

Sylvia Rytarowska is an entrepreneur, coach and English philology graduate. She is an advocate of making science more accessible to regular readers and is obsessed with psychology, self-development and sports. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook and visit her site here.


  1. Jay Gast

    Train your brain!? Easier said than done! Focusing on the “end goal” every day is hard. There’s an entire philosophy in the far east that deals exclusively with training the brain, and even they can barely master it!

    Good post, thanks for the insights.

  2. Sylvia Rytarowska

    Nice comment, Jay. Actually, it’s a little easier if you train your focus by doing one small thing every day. For example, if you’d like to get fitter, take a a five-minute break from whatever it is you’re doing and surf some motivating websites. It does work. Or, if you’re giving up a bad habit focus on how to survive one day without it.
    That’s how you eat an elephant: one bite at a time. It worked for me and many other people. Plus, if you exercise control over your impulses, you’re likely to be more successful financially – there’s a body of evidence to support this.

  3. Jagoda Perich-Anderson

    Your ideas go beyond the usual advice for sticking to your goals. I really like the one about finding your inspiration and activating it like in your Tumblr example.

  4. Sylvia Rytarowska

    Thank you. It’s really what I did. And now I realise that was what helped me get where I wanted, it’s not an easy piece of advice, though because everyone should find something special that will motivate them. For me, it turned out to be a blog.
    And Jagoda is a great name. I love it.

  5. Belinda Summers

    To stick with a resolution, you got to have that perfect mindset. One that could get you back in a work mode whenever you have to. It’s a matter of self-discipline.

  6. Sylvia Rytarowska

    Hi Belinda. You have a point here. D. Goleman actually quoted the so-called “Marshmallow Test” which proved that the ability to focus leads to impulse control (ergo: focus strengthens willpower/self-discipline).

    This test was conducted on 4-year-olds and also proved impulse control ability at an early age was an indicator of financial success in later years.

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  9. Mary Gravitt

    How to Actually Stick to Your Resolutions This Year? Thank you for this great tips. This kind of article teach us how to be inspired. Focus and discipline must be done for this kind of challenge to achieve your goal.

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