The Science Behind Making Your New Year’s Resolutions “Stick”

resolutions

Happy New Year! Hopefully your holiday celebrations have sent you into 2020 full of positive energy and motivation to make this year your best yet.

But sustaining that can-do attitude can be really challenging once we settle back into our daily routines. Study after study has shown that most New Year’s resolutions fail in a matter of weeks. That can lead to feelings of defeat and even depression before the year has even begun.

The following guest post from my good friend Steve Sanduski, CFP® is going to help you line up the daily stepping stones that will lead you to a successful 2020. Steve is my co-host on the Keen on Retirement podcast, and I was so glad to introduce him to the Keen Wealth family in person at our 2019 Holiday Breakfast. Steve is also a 30-plus-year veteran of the financial services industry with a real passion for self-improvement and goal-setting strategies. The formula Steve discusses can help you “stick with” your resolutions or make any other meaningful change in your life this year. Enjoy!


For most of us, New Year’s resolutions are about changing behavior. We want to exercise more. We want to eat better. We want to stop smoking. We want to save more and spend less.

Historically, this kind of self-improvement has focused on using education to change behavior: conversation, articles, podcasts, seminars, self-help books, etc.

Unfortunately, this approach is not always successful.

People usually know what they need to do to reach their goal, or know what the “right decision” is, but they still don’t do it. It’s that old knowing-doing gap idea. And much of the popular literature about how to create better habits and change your behavior, is, unfortunately, based on weak science.

The good news is, there is solid scientific research on how to change behavior and stick with this new behavior.

Dr. Sean Young is on the leading edge of this research. Dr. Young is Associate Professor at the School of Medicine at UCLA, a Wall Street Journal best-selling author, and Executive Director of the University of California Institute for Prediction Technology and the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. Dr. Young’s book, “Stick With It,” details a “scientifically proven method for changing your life — for good.”

I spent some time with Dr. Young discussing the ideas in his book and here’s what I learned.

1. Know The “ABCs” of the Behavior You Want to Change.

In his book, Dr. Young breaks down our behaviors into three groups:

A behaviors are things we do automatically, often without realizing we’re doing them. That friend of yours who can’t stop interrupting people during conversations? That’s an A behavior.

B behaviors are burning behaviors, things we know we should stop doing but can’t. Dr. Young explains, “The way most people talk about addiction, ‘I feel like I’m addicted to this,’ those are usually burning behaviors.” If you know you shouldn’t have another slice of cake but you’re already eating it, or you can’t stop clicking BUY NOW every time a hot deal pops into your inbox, you’re dealing with burning behaviors.

C behaviors are common behaviors tied to motivation. Dr. Young says, “With the C behavior, I’m aware of what I’m doing and I have conscious control over it, but other things get in the way. For example, I want to be able to exercise but I have other work that I have to get done, or an email came up. Other things get in the way.”

2. Apply the Right Mix of the “Seven Forces” to the A, B, or C Behavior You Want to Change.

Underlying every A, B, and C behavior is a mix of seven forces driving that behavior. Dr. Young uses the acronym SCIENCE to describe this framework.

“It’s not called ‘SCIENCE’ because you need to be a scientist or a doctor to know it,” Dr. Young says. “This framework is rooted in decades of scientific research. It comes from decades of psychologists and scientists, as well as from my own research with UCLA patients in the medical school, with our research participants in business and consulting work, and my own life.”

Stepladders – The idea of doing things in small incremental steps.

Community – What other people are doing has a big influence on us.

Important – If something is important to us, we will be more likely to do it.

Easy – The easier something is, the more likely we are to do it.

Neuro-hacks – Quick, mental shortcuts that can get us to think and act in ways we’ve never been able to before.

Captivating – The reward for changing our behavior needs to be truly captivating for the change to stick.

Engrained – If things happen repeatedly, and if we do them routinely, they become engrained in our brains, and easy to do.”

The key to changing the behavior and sticking with it is to apply the right mix of the Seven Forces to the A, B, or C behavior.

3. Change Starts with Action.

“There are a lot of books and speakers out there saying that change starts in your mind,” Dr. Young says. “Well, there’s a reason why people keep going back to these speakers and people keep reading more and more of these books, because what we’re taught with this is the way to be able to stick with things is to feel motivated, to believe that I can do it and to feel that motivation. But motivation is a temporary feeling. It comes and it goes. If you really want to stay engaged and do something long-term, we have to have a process for getting ourselves to stick with something no matter how we feel.”

So how can Dr. Young’s process help us in the real world?

4. Start with a Small Step, Build Towards a Goal, Achieve a Dream.

Let’s say you’re planning to retire in the next 3-5 years, and you want to max out your IRA catch-up contribution in 2020.

What’s the first Step you could take, right now, towards achieving that?

Maybe you check your monthly budget to see how much extra you could afford to contribute every month. Or maybe your first Step is to call your fiduciary advisor and make an appointment to discuss how you can adjust your financial planning to maximize your contribution this year, and every year until you do retire.

That first Step is going to help you build towards a Goal, which is something that takes one to three months to accomplish. So, after analyzing your budget and discussing with your advisor, you should be able to establish a 3-month goal for your IRA contributions.

Hit that 3-month Goal, and your Dream of maxing out your IRA for the year is going to start coming into focus.

Dr. Young says, “By breaking things down like that into Steps, Goals, and Dreams, making it quantifiable, and making it a small and incremental process, then we can get ourselves to stick with things that we want to be able to do and be on the path toward that Dream that we’re visualizing and believe in.”

5. Lasting Change Requires a Community.

“You need a certain amount of people doing something in order to create a change in a trend, in order to create a tipping point for it,” Dr. Young says. “So, we leverage that science when we create our communities for change.”

When Dr. Young is testing out his hypotheses, he’s working with groups of people in the hundreds. Your “community for change” doesn’t have to be that big. What you need is a person or a group of people working towards a similar goal who will hold you accountable for your own progress and motivate you to stay on track. Find a jogging buddy who will get you out on the road three days per week. Join a book club whose schedule will help you reach your annual reading goals. Work with a coach who will help you lower your handicap.

You might not need to look much further than your spouse to create your own “community for change,” especially when it comes to achieving financial goals. In fact, working towards a shared purpose can help married couples stay on the same page about their money and what their retirement is going to be like.

Your fiduciary advisor can also be a great community-building resource. If you’ve never attended one of your advisor’s events, make this the year you do so. You’ll meet other soon-to-be retirees as well as seasoned “pros” who have invaluable advice on how to work through this major transition.

Now, no goal-setting system is totally foolproof. There will be days when you just can’t get out of bed and your weekly jogging goal is thrown off. If your roof starts leaking, that extra IRA contribution might have to wait.

And that leads to one final piece of this framework: give yourself permission to fail, and when you get back on track, give yourself permission to celebrate short-term milestones. Self-improvement isn’t a destination, it’s an ongoing journey. There will be smooth stretches and bumps in the road. But if the trip is challenging, rewarding, and fun, you’ll stick with it.

Bill Keen: Sustaining that can-do attitude towards resolutions can be really challenging once we settle back into our daily routines.

About Bill

Bill Keen is a CHARTERED RETIREMENT PLANNING COUNSELOR℠ and independent financial advisor with more than 25 years of industry experience. As the founder and CEO of Keen Wealth Advisors, a registered investment advisory firm, he specializes in providing personalized retirement planning designed to help people thrive before and during their retirement years. With a passion for educating others, Bill regularly blogs about retirement planning, hosts the podcast Keen on Retirement, and has contributed to U.S. News and World Report, Reuters, Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch, Yahoo Finance, and other publications. Based in Overland Park, Kansas, Bill and his team work with clients throughout the greater Kansas City area and across the nation. To learn more, connect with him on LinkedIn or visit www.keenwealthadvisors.com.

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