In January, many will set a goal for the New Year that for most will be hard to keep. By February, resolutions to eat better and exercise more will be forgotten about at best, abandoned at worst. How can people stick to their resolutions? Stanford scholars from across the social sciences, science and medicine are working together to better understand what works – and what doesn’t work – when people want to make a change in their lives.

Stanford researchers have studied what can cause people to abandon their goal and how they can stay motivated. They have also explored what leads to successful health outcomes: Is a low-carb diet better than a low-fat one? According to one study, it’s neither. Or how accurate are fitness trackers? When counting calories burned, researchers found not very. Is exercise or diet better for weight loss? One health researcher found that for best results, it may be useful to do both at the same time.

Here is insight – and maybe a little inspiration – for how to accomplish any goal, plus specific tips on achieving some of the most common resolutions.

Image credit: Getty Images

How to accomplish a goal

There are plenty of tips out there about how to achieve a goal: Take small steps. Don’t compare yourself to others. Set specific targets. Either you have it or you don’t.

But these pieces of well-intended advice might not be good advice. It might even lead people to give up their pursuit, according to Stanford research:

Focus on small steps first, then shift to the larger goal

Research shows that incremental achievements are good early motivators, but their effect wanes as the finish line nears.

Setting vague goals can help you keep those New Year’s resolutions

New research says people are more likely to achieve a goal if it’s sketched out in vague terms than if it’s set in stone with a specific target.

Why ‘Find your passion!’ may be bad advice

The belief that interests arrive fully formed and must simply be “found” can lead people to limit their pursuit of new fields and give up when they encounter challenges, according to a new Stanford study.

Should experts practice what they preach?

A study shows that doctors who talk about their love of fitness or describe their exercise regimen and diet on their professional website (e.g., “In my spare time I train for marathons and enjoy cooking vegan meals”) may turn off prospective patients who are struggling with their weight rather than inspire them.

Change behaviors by changing perception of normal

In a study, people ate less meat and conserved more water when they thought those behaviors reflected how society is changing. The findings could point to new ways of encouraging other behavior changes.

Why do we avoid information right when we need it most?

Comparing ourselves to others can help us meet goals – especially if the timing’s right.

What do we really want?

A new study examines the battle between idealized attitudes and those we actually have.

How to let go of your New Year’s resolutions – and everything you think they say about you

Stanford education scholars share research-based ideas for staying motivated, building perseverance and sparking creativity in the year ahead.

Image credit: Getty Images

Resolution: Eat healthier; lose weight

From the fields of medicine and the social sciences, Stanford researchers have examined the effects of nutrition, food choices and diet on health outcomes. Here are some of their discoveries on eating healthy and losing weight:

Low-fat or low-carb? It’s a draw, study finds

Stanford researchers have found that, contrary to previous studies, insulin levels and a specific genotype pattern don’t predict weight-loss success.

Middle age and weight challenges

Weight management is challenging in our “middle-age” years. Whether because of genetics, aging, hormones, lifestyle or “life changes,” it’s tough for many to lose weight and harder to keep from regaining it in these years.

Diabetic-level glucose spikes seen in healthy people

A study out of Stanford in which blood sugar levels were continuously monitored reveals that even people who think they’re “healthy” should pay attention to what they eat.

Weight flux alters molecular profile

Stanford scientists have found links between changes in a person’s weight and shifts in their microbiome, immune system and cardiovascular system.

One approach can prevent teen obesity, eating disorders, new guidelines say

New guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics tell pediatricians and parents to avoid focusing on teenagers’ weight and shape to prevent both obesity and eating disorders.

Food rules positively influence teen food choices

Stanford researchers surveyed how adolescents make independent food decisions. They found that when teens have health-oriented food rules at home, they are more likely to eat healthier on their own.

One physician’s personalized quest for better health

Larry Chu chronicled his weight-loss efforts on a blog he named precision: me, which he described as a demonstration project of how people can participate in precision health care.

Christopher Gardner busts myths about milk

Milk is a good source of calcium but isn’t necessarily the most critical factor for bone health, according to a Stanford researcher who recently discussed the facts and “facts” about milk.

Timing of stress-hormone pulses controls weight gain

A circadian code controls the switch that produces fat cells, according to a new study by Stanford researchers.

5 questions: Randall Stafford advocates a plant-based diet

The preventive-medicine expert addresses the failure of the newest USDA Dietary Guidelines to articulate the health and climate benefits of a low-meat diet.

Mastering weight-maintenance skills before embarking on diet helps women avoid backsliding, study shows

Michaela Kiernan and her colleagues found that women who learned how to maintain their weight before starting a diet were better able to keep from regaining the weight.

5 questions: Jeremy Goldhaber-Fiebert on disconnect between child and adult obesity

Instilling healthy eating and exercise habits in children may help prevent obesity later in life.

Image credit: Getty Images

Resolution: Exercise more

Stanford scholars have explored a variety of ways to effectively integrate physical activity into one’s life. From small to big lifestyle changes, here are some things Stanford researchers have learned about making an exercise routine work:

Change diet, exercise habits at same time for best results, study says

Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine have discovered that focusing on changing exercise and diet at the same time gives a bigger boost than tackling them sequentially.

The road to healthier habits

Research shows that bolstering people’s sense of well-being can motivate them to slim down or exercise more.

How your perception of health may extend your life

Stanford researchers found that U.S. adults who believed that they were less active than their peers died younger than those who believed they were more active.

Physical activity helps fight genetic risk of heart disease

In an observational study of almost a half-million participants, Stanford researchers discovered an association between high fitness levels and low heart disease, even among those at genetic risk.

Fitness trackers accurately measure heart rate but not calories burned

A Stanford inquiry into the accuracy of seven wristband activity monitors showed that six out of seven devices measured heart rate within 5 percent. None, however, measured energy expenditure well.

Lack of exercise, not diet, linked to rise in obesity, Stanford research shows

An examination of national health survey results suggests that inactivity, rather than higher calorie intake, could be driving the surge in obesity.

Counting steps via smartphones reveals intriguing clues about obesity

A global study based on daily steps counted by smartphones discovers “activity inequality.” It’s similar to income inequality, except that the “step-poor” are prone to obesity while the “step-rich” tend toward fitness and health.

Image credit: Getty Images

Resolution: Increase job satisfaction, in oneself and others

Stanford Graduate School of Business scholars have produced a wealth of information about work and careers. From topics such as finding career satisfaction to getting the best out of oneself, here is some insight from professors in the fields of management and organizational behavior:

How do you find breakthrough ideas?

What neuroscience tells us about getting the best out of yourself, your colleagues and your boss

Bringing mindfulness to your career

In her new book, How We Work, Stanford GSB lecturer Leah Weiss explores how to transform your on-the-job experience.

The secret to finding lasting career satisfaction

Michael Melcher shares his insights for carving out long-term success and fulfillment.

Improve your executive presence

Stanford GSB lecturer and coach Allison Kluger teaches nascent entrepreneurs how to communicate like a leader.

Six ways to be a better manager

Kill consensus and beware the false negative, says one Stanford GSB professor.

Be better at spontaneous speaking

Use these tools to help you think fast and talk smart.

Beware of workplace policies that kill motivation

Research explains why and how brevity often beats specificity in employee contracts.

Should employees design their own jobs?

A scholar who studies job crafting says you may be less stuck in your job than you think.

The secret sauce in workplace training

First-time workers do better when trainers focus on “unwritten skills,” such as how to talk to strangers.

Image credit: Getty Images

Resolution: Save money

Saving money early is critical to ensuring financial security later in life, but for some, managing finances can feel overwhelming and complicated, according to Stanford research. What do informed financial decisions look like?How can savings be encouraged, and what percentage of one’s annual income does one need to save to guarantee security later in life? This is what Stanford scholars have found:

How do you encourage saving?

A new study shows that people who feel powerful save more money.

Making informed financial decisions

Stanford’s Mind Over Money program offers a series of video seminars that provide a wealth of information about financial management.

Staying flexible on retirement spending

Research looks at how workers can be sure to save enough to retire.

Stanford’s Mind Over Money program fosters financial literacy

Alumna Erika Topete is assistant director of the program, which aims to provide undergraduate and graduate students with the practical knowledge they need to make informed financial decisions on the Farm and in their lives and careers beyond graduation.

Americans are not financially prepared for old age, study finds

A new report published by the Stanford Center on Longevity looks at the financial security of Americans at different life stages, with a focus on two key areas of economic stability: homeownership and retirement. Across generations, Americans are falling short.

Six reasons to rethink aging and retirement

Researchers at the Stanford Center on Longevity explain that what we think about mental health, exercise and financial stability is wrong.

Image credit: Getty Images

Resolution: Practice self-care; find balance

Stanford scholars from the fields of business to medicine have examined various ways – big and small – to incorporate mindfulness, self-care and balance into hectic schedules and everyday life. Here are some of their findings on topics like how to unplug from technology, achieve work/life balance and stop sweating everyday aggravations:

Lessen your stress

Do you recognize when you are stressed out, but can’t find a way to overcome the negative feelings that often accompany stressful situations? Kim Bullock, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford School of Medicine, talks about what stress is really all about and how we can better manage it.

Achieving balance in work and life

The constant pull between career and family is stressing us out. Economist Myra Strober says it doesn’t have to be that way.

How to bring your spiritual side to work every day

Many successful business people integrate religion into their careers.

Study shows how slow breathing induces tranquility

Stanford scientists have identified a small group of neurons that communicates goings-on in the brain’s respiratory control center to the structure responsible for generating arousal throughout the brain.

Embracing stress is more important than reducing stress, Stanford psychologist says

Kelly McGonigal says new research indicates that stress can make us stronger, smarter and happier.

What, me worry?

Why you should stop sweating everyday aggravations and embrace the benefits of stress.

Five strategies to challenge negative thoughts

Break out of this self-destructive habit to become more productive in work and life.

Technology you can’t resist

Kelly McGonigal argues we’re becoming addicted to our devices. Here’s how to unplug.