Hacking New Year’s Resolutions: How do they actually work?

Asian Alliance for Mental Health
5 min readJan 10, 2021

By Victoria Chen

After the collectively difficult year we’ve had, many of us might be looking towards the future with resolutions in mind. Every new year, people enjoy writing down an extensive list of habits they want to build, tackling them all at once with the sheer power of force. While this might work for the first week or two, motivation quickly wanes, leading many to give up. Without certain strategies, resolutions can be difficult to implement into our lives.

Why don’t resolutions stick? Big changes do not require grand actions but come from a series of small, incremental steps regularly practiced for the long-term. However, by tweaking minor changes in your daily routine, new habits become much easier to maintain. In this article, we’ll go over 5 ways in which you can hack your habits to reach the goals you want.

  1. Surround new habits with ones already in place

As one of the most effective ways to work towards a certain goal, habit stacking involves utilizing present routines (brushing your teeth, having dinner, etc…) and linking that event with a new habit you want to develop.

To practice habit stacking, use statements like this: After I [Habit A], then I will [Habit B]. Here are some examples:

  • After I attend my zoom lectures, then I will get up for a walk.
  • After I brush my teeth, then I will floss.
  • After eating lunch, I will drink a glass of water.
  • After I finish my breakfast, I will read one chapter of a book.

2. Strengthening the cues to initiate the habit

To properly instill new habits, the main aspects of the habit feedback loop must be adjusted accordingly to your goal. Derived from James Clear’s “Atomic Habits,” the loop consists of a strong cue, craving for the habit, an automatic response, and a fulfilling reward. As the most important part of this feedback system, the cue, usually external and clearly accessible, acts as the starting ground for a habit to happen. Cues can be seen in the habits we already have; for instance, when getting into a car (external cue), we automatically put on our seatbelt (response). Strengthening a cue for a fresh, new habit boils down to amplifying its presence. In the example of jogging after your zoom lectures, you could always set your exercise clothes on your desk as a reminder to run. You can take this a step further and just wear those clothes throughout your lectures. Find yourself glued on your computer after classes, keeping you away from your run? Set an automatic-shutdown timer on your computer. By allowing your cue to manifest as the elephant in the room, the easier the transition to response-mode will be, and the more likely you will carry out your new habit.

Just keep asking yourself: “How can I make this habit more obvious?”

3. Quantify habits by starting small

The craving section can be one of the toughest parts to strengthen in the feedback loop, especially when motivation begins to wane. One of the main reasons why resolutions fail is that people tend to set long time periods when it comes to quantifying resolutions, which lowers the need to respond. Setting a new habit of one hour or more can prevent you from “craving” the habit. For a new habit to embed itself in your current routine, you have to start small and build your way up. For example, if you want to learn how to code and have a goal of 1 hour of practice everyday, start with only 5 minutes or 10 minutes. Setting the time limit low will incentivize you to push for more minutes, increasing your motivation. After a week or several days, depending on the content and pace, you can raise the bar from 10 to 20 to 30 minutes, all the way up to 1 hour.

4. Utilize problem-solving techniques for damage control

In the process of learning a new habit or making big changes to your everyday routine, mistakes are bound to happen. Multiple obstacles, including motivation or direction loss, will test your resilience and problem-solving skills, and by actively practicing these aspects, you can easily bounce back from any blip in your progress. Having a procedure in mind for “damage control” not only applies to habits but also helps to frame your mindset when tackling other challenges you may encounter in your life. Here’s one example of how you can frame your own procedure:

  1. Identify the issue: Using the example of self-studying, for example, you might encounter on your daily 20 problem run that you struggle at a certain type of problem.
  2. Reel Back: Instead of doing the targeted 20 everyday, you can cut this down to 5 problems instead.
  3. Strengthen Existing Cues: In addition to already having your textbook and notes on the desk every morning, but you can try opening up the books to the relevant section you’re studying. Since procrastination might be an issue as you’re struggling to keep a routine together, you can try using apps like Flipd or ColdTurkey to block online distractions, including apps, websites, and programs.

5. Practice self-acceptance

The thought of setting, working, and achieving a goal can be empowering, bringing a sense of satisfaction unlike any other, but the mentality that you will be “happier” once you reach a kind of final “destination” can, surprisingly, hinder you from progress and the happiness you strive for. Human nature often pushes us to yearn for more than cherish the smaller successes we make in life. Even if we reach that ultimate goal in our lives, it’s inevitable we will eventually yearn for something greater. Therefore, when planning and working towards your New Year’s resolutions, finding what makes the path enjoyable and appreciating yourself for your small successes will provide the incentive for you to keep going. The last part of the habit loop involves a fulfilling reward for every step of the way; they can be tangible forms of self-care, but a reward can just be easy as practicing acceptance, acknowledging your small wins like how you would congratulate a close friend or family member. Much like any skill, self-acceptance can be enhanced through repetition, not only enriches the habit-building experience but also significantly helps with your own mental health and quality of life. As discussed in the beginning, taking control of change in your life links directly to your own wellness, and now with techniques in mind, go ahead and try framing new habits for the upcoming year!

Want to read more on habits?


James Clear- Atomic Habits



Charles Duhigg- The Power of Habit


Scientific Articles:

Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice




Asian Alliance for Mental Health

We aim to de-stigmatize mental health through open dialogue and multimedia storytelling to bring visibility to mental health issues within Asian communities.