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Failed at keeping your resolutions in the past? Psychologists have some insights and advice for you to stick to them this year.

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[♩INTRO ].

Odds are, you've made New Year's resolutions before. And they probably sounded great at the time.

Hooray! I'm going to be a better me! But how often do you stick to those resolutions, really?

Maybe you're motivated to hit the gym for the first couple of weeks of the year, but by February you've already forgotten where you put your ID card. As frustrating as that can be, psychologists do have some insights into why it's so hard for us to stick to our resolutions — and some advice for how to actually accomplish them this time around. The biggest problem seems to be the kinds of resolutions we make.

Researchers have been trying to pin down what makes a goal motivating for a long time. According to the commonly-accepted goal-setting theory, specific and challenging goals make us work the hardest and perform well — much better than, say, being told to “do your best.” The specific part makes sense—that way, your successes are measurable. Over and over again, studies have shown that measurable goals work because they allow you to see how things are coming along, so you don't give up right away or feel like you'll never accomplish as much as you want to.

So if you want to lose weight, for example, your best bet would be to decide how much weight and by when, rather than just saying you'd like to be thinner. Or if want to be more adventurous, you could commit to trying one new activity a month. But the idea that we're more likely to succeed with challenging goals is a little less intuitive.

You'd think the easier the goal, the more likely you'd be to achieve it. But it turns out that's not the case. For example, way back in 1976, researchers had 96 people take reading comprehension tests.

Some were asked to try to answer 18 questions correctly, some were asked to try for 5 questions, and the rest were told to just “do their job.” They were also split into a timed group and an untimed one. Those told to try to get 18 right predicted that they'd answer more questions correctly — and then they did! They also put in more effort.

Untimed participants who were given the hard goal spent 33% more time working on the questions than those who were given the easy goal, and 57% more time than those who were just told to do their best. Since then, lots of other studies have found the same thing: you're more likely to be successful if you aim high — as long as the goal is still within your reach. That's actually a pretty big caveat.

Because generally speaking, goals are a lot harder and take longer to achieve that we think. That miserable depression you feel when you ultimately fail to achieve an impossible goal? It has a special name: false-hope syndrome.

Obviously, you don't make resolutions thinking you'll fail. You pick things that you think you have control over, and because being in control feels good, making resolutions feels good, too. That confidence in your ability to exert control over your behaviors and actions, also known as self-efficacy, is a key factor in achieving goals.

But it can also make you too cocky. Studies have found that the warm and fuzzies that come with goal-setting can fade quickly, and when people don't meet those goals, they're more likely to feel badly about themselves or consider themselves failures. The best solution, researchers say, is to channel Goldilocks and choose resolutions that aren't too easy or too hard, but juuuuust right.

Unfortunately, this can be a bit of a guessing game. Tracking your progress and getting feedback on how you're doing can help you pinpoint where that sweet spot is. Research on goal-setting theory has also found some other tricks that might help you stick to your guns.

Making your resolution a part of your routine, so there's something consistent reminding you to keep it up, can increase your chance of success. So can telling other people what you're up to. We tend to not want to look inconsistent or like failures in front of other people, so making our goals public has been shown to increase our commitment to them.

And don't worry too much about failure or setbacks. How you frame your successes and failures is really important. Hard goals aren't as motivating if you're worried about failing, and being able to set aside temporary failures makes a big difference in finally succeeding.

But while you're working towards keeping that resolution, it's worth keeping in mind that goals can have negative effects, too. When you're focusing on one thing, sometimes that comes at the expense of others. And focusing on a short-term goal might cause you to overlook long-term consequences.

Plus, goals can destroy intrinsic motivation, meaning that you stop doing something because you want to and start doing it because you have to. These pitfalls are mainly tied to reward systems, which is why it might not be a good idea to try to motivate yourself with a shiny prize for keeping your resolution. So like, don't commit to learning French because you'll reward yourself with a trip to Paris.

Decide you want to learn French, then set up a plan for how many segments of that online course you'll finish by June, or whatever. And if you're really stuck on what to resolve, you could always decide to watch every single episode of SciShow! It's specific, measurable, and you'll have tons of fascinating facts to share with your friends!

In the meantime, thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych, and if you want to learn more about how we think we control the world way more than we actually do, you can check out our episode on perceived control. [♩OUTRO ].