How to Keep New Year's Resolutions: Make Them in August

How to Keep New Year's Resolutions: Make Them in August
People rush to visit goal-setting websites at the start of the year. Data from one, StickK, suggests that those pledging changes in late summer succeed more frequently (Photograph by Chun-Teh Chen)
Photograph by Chun-Teh Chen

Here’s some bad news for those making New Year’s resolutions now: January is the worst month to try to change your life, according to data from StickK, one of several websites designed to help people achieve personal goals. “Everybody wants to make a New Year’s resolution,” says Jordan Goldberg, chief executive of the 18-employee New York company, which see its traffic triple at the start of the year as thousands of people commit to exercising more, losing weight, and quitting smoking. “Their willpower to do so varies considerably.”

The best month to try to change, according to StickK’s data, is August, when students are preparing to go back to school and many people are settling into new routines.

There’s no clinical research on the ideal time of year to make improvements, says John Norcross, a psychologist at the University of Scranton and author of Changeology, a new book on behavior change. One explanation for January’s high failure rate: “People rushing in are likely to fail,” Norcross says. That can demoralize them and make it harder to modify their habits later. “They should be changing when they’re prepared,” he says.

The good news: Those who keep their commitments for at least three months tend to stick long-term, no matter what time of year they’re made. Here’s a chart of data from a 1989 study of resolutions Norcross published in the Journal of Substance Abuse, showing when people relapse:

Goldberg agrees that when you make a resolution is less important to succeeding than how you do it. StickK lets you set up a contract that will cost you money if you fail to meet your goals. The funds are charged to a credit card entered when you set the goal and forfeits go to a charity or a person you designate; if you claim success, you lose nothing. For added incentive, you can pick an “anti-charity” whose cause you oppose. (Some British soccer fans even select a rival football club to get their cash if they fail.) Unless the money is going to another individual, StickK takes a cut of about 20 percent to 30 percent; it also makes money by selling its techniques to corporate wellness programs.

For a further layer of enforcement, StickK lets you designate a friend to hold you accountable and post your progress on social networks. “It’s about having skin in the game,” says Goldberg. With money on the line and a friend nudging you along, your chances of success rise from 29 percent to 74 percent, according to StickK’s data, based on users’ self-reported results.

Goldberg says he made two resolutions at the start of 2012: to go to the gym three times a week and to get to bed earlier. He says he’s succeeded at the first, but getting enough rest has been trickier. “When you’re running a startup, doing a lot of traveling, it’s tough to maintain a good sleep schedule,” he says. Maybe he should try again next August.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE