How To Commit To Your New Year’s Resolutions Without Relying On Self-Discipline


In 1950, researcher Henry A. Landsberger analysed a series of studies conducted between 1924 and 1932, at a Western electric factory outside Chicago, called Hawthorne Works. [1]

The studies were commissioned by Hawthorne Works to identify whether workers became more productive in higher or lower levels of light.

Results showed, with increases in illumination, workers’ productivity improved and when the experiment ended, productivity decreased.

There was, however, an irony to the study: Landsberger, to his surprise, learned workers had been more productive, not because of changes in their environment as first hypothesised, but because of the researchers’ interest in them.

The workers, when observed by others, felt motivated to work harder and their output increased. 

This became known as the Hawthorne effect.

Before we learn how we can use the Hawthorne effect in behaviour change, let’s look at why it’s necessary to begin with.   

New Year’s Irresolution

New Year’s Day recently passed us and with it, came New Year’s resolutions: promises to start anew and improve our health, wealth and wellness for the coming year.

Perhaps you wrote a New Year’s resolution and are planning to implement a behaviour change yourself, after all, with a new year, comes a new beginning.

Typically, when we decide what we want, we believe we can “will” ourselves to do it and that’s that; we forecast days of eating mindfully and exercising frequently and all without resistance to change.

But, as we know, willpower is finite and the more we use it, the more it depletes. “Will involves treating the current situation as part of a general pattern”, writes Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

He elaborates:

Smoking one cigarette will not jeopardize your health. Taking heroin once will not make you addicted. One piece of cake won’t make you fat, and skipping one assignment won’t ruin your career. But in order to stay healthy and employed, you must treat (almost) every episode as a reflection of the general need to resist these temptations. [2]

This is why our assertions to curb our cravings are rarely upheld: we excuse ourselves once and “once” becomes the new normal.

One study by the University of Scranton found 77 percent of hopeful resolvers passed the first week, 55 percent made it the first month but only 40 percent were still on course six months later. [3]

Are we not motivated to overcome resistance to change? Not necessarily and in reality what we often misidentify as a behavioural problem is, in fact, a situational one: it’s not that we’re demotivated, it’s that we don’t have a strategy.

That strategy is twofold. Firstly, we must frame our intention correctly from the offset and with daily expectations that are concrete, rather than abstract: writing 750 words a day is specific, “writing our novel” is not.

And secondly, much like Hawthorne’s employees, when must perform optimally under a watchful gaze of critics and supporters; it isn’t enough to say we’re going to abstain from alcohol for 30 days, run 8 kilometres a week or sleep seven to nine hours a night: we must have accountability.

This is not for others – it’s for us.

Self-discipline does not always motivate us, but having stakes does.

Introducing Stakes

“A goal without real consequences is wishful thinking” writes Tim Ferriss in his New York Time’s bestselling book The 4 Hour Chef, “Good follow through doesn’t depend on the right intentions. It depends on the right incentives”. [4]

Enter stakes: a forfeit we agree to fulfill if we’re unsuccessful in our attempt. Like Cortés, you must burn your ships in order to advance.

Suppose you want to commit to writing 750 words a day for 30 days because you want to write an eBook. You might hope to be consistent, but when parental commitments and daily chores intervene, your daily writing quota is interrupted. You miss one day, and then a second and soon, your inertia becomes insurmountable.

You decided to repeat your 30-day challenge but with one difference: you set stakes.

The stakes are simple: for every day you miss, you will donate $75 to an anti-charity. This is a charity you would be ashamed to have your name associated with. will even provide you with a referee to adjudicate your contract and help with you donation – if you’re unsuccessful.

By having accountability, you demonstrate a commitment to change. You’re all in. There’s no excuse and no exit strategy. Retreat is difficult when there’s no option.

If you’re not averse to losing money, instead, make your forfeit a behaviour you gain for not committing: say, having a cold shower for every day you forgo doing your new behaviour?

That ought to do it.

In Closing

There is one caveat for introducing stakes: you only pay out if you’re unsuccessful in committing to your new behaviour, not if you fail to realise your desired outcome.

Played fair but didn’t lose 14 pounds as planned for? No problem. Keep your money. But slipped up and didn’t learn from it? Pay up.

Changing our habits doesn’t have to be as hard as we make it out to be. Introduce stakes, start, celebrate wins, rewards yourself and repeat.

Are you prepared to put your money where your mouth is?


[1] Cherry, K. (2014) What Is the Hawthorne Effect?, Available at: (Accessed: 12 January 2015).

[2] Baumeister, R., Tierney, J. (2001) Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, London: Penguin.

[3] Norcross J.C., Vangarelli D.J. (1989) ‘The Resolution Solution: Longitudinal Examination of New Year’s Change Attempts’, J Subst Abuse, 1(2), pp. 127-34 [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 29 December 2014).

[4] Ferriss, T. (2012) The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life, Seattle: Amazon Publishing.