The Science of Setting SMART New Year’s Resolutions

By Wes Kilgore, Well Beings

  • A subscription to a chair yoga app that was used a total of zero times.
  • A StairClimber that is not-so-jokingly referred to these days as a clothes rack.
  • Stacks of barely-read or unread/unheard books from my brief flirtation with starting a “Book a Week” routine.

The road to a happier, healthier, more productive me is paved with broken New Year’s resolutions. 

Like many people, I usually see the start of a new year as an opportunity for reflection and self-improvement. And like many, the lofty, ambitious aims of New Year’s resolutions tend to run head-on into the time constraints and motivational drains of everyday life and are often abandoned shortly after being made. Fortunately, over the years, I’ve learned that by understanding the science of setting successful resolutions and applying a SMART goal framework, you can increase your chances of achieving your goals and make lasting changes in the year ahead. 

The Science of Successful Resolutions

Goal Setting and the Brain

To comprehend the science behind successful resolutions, it’s essential to understand how the brain processes goal setting. According to research, setting clear and specific goals activates the brain’s reward system, releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with motivation and pleasure. This initial burst of motivation is what propels us to take action towards our goals.


Motivation is a key factor in sticking to resolutions. It’s important to tap into your intrinsic motivation, the internal drive that comes from within. Psychologists suggest that cultivating a growth mindset and visualizing the benefits of achieving your resolutions can help maintain motivation. 

The Role of Willpower and Habit Formation

Willpower is a limited resource, and it can wane over time. So, relying solely on willpower to maintain your resolutions is likely to be unsustainable. Instead, focus on building habits that support your goals. Habits, once established, require less effort and willpower to maintain. 

Setting SMART Goals for the New Year

The first step toward keeping your New Year’s resolutions is to set SMART goals — that is goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable and Relevant. The concept of SMART goals is a business management tool that was popularized in a 1981 Management Review article written by George T. Doran.


One of the key principles of setting effective resolutions is being specific about what you want to achieve. For example, instead of a vague resolution like “get healthier,” specify “exercise for 30 minutes five days a week” or “eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily”.


Measurable goals allow you to track your progress and know when you’ve achieved them. Use quantifiable metrics like “lose 10 pounds,” “save $1,000,” or “reduce stress by practicing mindfulness for 20 minutes a day.”


Resolutions should be challenging but achievable. Ensure that your goals are realistic given your current circumstances and resources. Setting overly ambitious goals can lead to frustration and abandonment.


Your resolutions should align with your values and long-term objectives. Consider how each resolution contributes to your overall well-being and personal growth.


Set deadlines for your resolutions to create a sense of urgency and commitment. For instance, “run a 5k race by June 30th” or “pay off credit card debt within one year.”

Expert Insights and Additional Resources

Want to learn more about setting SMART goals and attainable New Year’s resolutions? Check out these resources from PBS and Well Beings’ partners.

As you embark on your journey to fulfill your New Year’s resolutions, remember that the key to success lies in the combination of science-backed strategies and the SMART goal framework. With specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound resolutions, you’ll be better equipped to make lasting improvements in your life. By tapping into your motivation, building habits, and seeking guidance from experts, you can make this year the one where your resolutions actually come to fruition.

About the Author

ee Dunning, author & psychotherapist providing crisis intervention

Wes Kilgore is a writer, musician and bon vivant based in the Washington, DC area, and the proud parent of two disturbingly well-adjusted young women and two borderline sociopathic Corgis. is a mental health resource, not a crisis or suicide response website. If you are in crisis, or experiencing thoughts of suicide, please call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. The service is free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.