• Scientists in Sweden have conducted the ‘world’s largest’ experimental study on New Year’s resolutions.
  • The psychologists and psychiatrists found a clear difference in the chances of sticking to two different types of goals.
  • Approach-oriented New Year's resolutions had a higher success rate than those who made avoidance-oriented resolutions.

As millions of us set new goals from 1 January, psychologists in Sweden have some useful news – starting a good habit is more likely to succeed than quitting a bad one.

In a year-long study of more than 1,000 people who said they’d made New Year’s resolutions, scientists at Stockholm University and Linköping University in Sweden concluded that ‘approach goals’ were more effective in changing behaviour than ‘avoidance goals’.

“An approach goal is a resolution where you try to adopt a new habit or introduce something new in your life,” the authors explained. “Resolutions regarding avoiding or quitting something, ‘avoidance goals,’ proved to be less successful.”

Study participants who made approach-oriented New Year's resolutions had a higher success rate – 59% – than those who made avoidance-oriented resolutions – 47%.

Reframe your focus

For those making New Year’s resolutions, simply reframing or rephrasing their goal could be the key to making it stick.

Report co-author Per Carlbring, a psychology professor at Stockholm University said: “For example, if your goal is to stop eating sweets in order to lose weight, you will most likely be more successful if you say, ‘I will eat fruit several times a day’ instead.

“You then replace sweets with something healthier, which probably means you will lose weight and also keep your resolution.”

He added: “You cannot erase a behaviour, but you can replace it with something else. Although, this might be harder to apply to the resolution ‘I will quit smoking’, which is something you might do 20 times a day.”

Approach-oriented New Year's resolutions have a higher success rate.
Image: PLOS ONE/Stockholm University

Looking forward

The study participants came up with their own resolutions, with the most popular topics related to physical health, weight loss and change of eating habits.

And they were split into three groups, which received varied levels of support – including exercises on motivation and how to cope with possible hurdles.

"Participants receiving some support reported greater success than those receiving extended support, and those receiving no support," the authors explain.

"This suggests that information, instructions, and exercises regarding effective goal setting, administered via the internet, could affect the likelihood of success - another question to study further."

Most popular New Year’s resolutions
Image: PLOS ONE/Stockholm University

While the study focuses on New Year as a common ‘fresh start’ landmark, there are wider implications for goal-setting and behaviour change.

“Given the fact that millions of people pledge to make a change for the better every year, there is a need for more systematic research,” the authors say.

“Increasing the likelihood of people succeeding with their New Year’s resolutions could both be beneficial for the individual and for society.”