How to Make (and Keep) a New Year's Resolution
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WRITTEN BY JEN A. MILLER
ILLUSTRATIONS BY ABBEY LOSSING
Are you making a resolution for 2020? Warning: More than half of all resolutions fail, but this year, they don’t have to be yours. Here’s how to identify the right resolution to improve your life, create a plan on how to reach it, and become part of the small group of people that successfully achieve their goal.
Pick the Right Resolution
You’ll give yourself your best shot at success if you set a goal that’s doable — and meaningful too.
According to the time management firm FranklinCovey, one third of resolutioners don’t make it past the end of January.
A lot of these resolutions fail because they’re not the right resolutions. And a resolution may be wrong for one of three main reasons:
- It’s a resolution created based on what someone else (or society) is telling you to change.
- It’s too vague.
- You don’t have a realistic plan for achieving your resolution.
Your goals should be smart — and SMART. That’s an acronym coined in the journal Management Review in 1981 for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. It may work for management, but it can also work in setting your resolutions, too.
- Specific. Your resolution should be absolutely clear. “Making a concrete goal is really important rather than just vaguely saying ‘I want to lose weight.’ You want to have a goal: How much weight do you want to lose and at what time interval?” said Katherine L. Milkman, an associate professor of operations information and decisions at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “Five pounds in the next two months — that’s going to be more effective.”
- Measurable. This may seem obvious if your goal is a fitness or weight loss related one, but it’s also important if you’re trying to cut back on something, too. If, for example, you want to stop biting your nails, take pictures of your nails over time so you can track your progress in how those nails grow back out, said Jeffrey Gardere, a psychologist and professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine. Logging progress into a journal or making notes on your phone or in an app designed to help you track behaviors can reinforce the progress, no matter what your resolution may be.
- Achievable. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have big stretch goals. But trying to take too big a step too fast can leave you frustrated, or affect other areas of your life to the point that your resolution takes over your life — and both you and your friends and family flail. So, for example, resolving to save enough money to retire in five years when you’re 30 years old is probably not realistic, but saving an extra $100 a month may be. (And if that’s easy, you can slide that number up to an extra $200, $300 or $400 a month).
- Relevant. Is this a goal that really matters to you, and are you making it for the right reasons? “If you do it out of the sense of self-hate or remorse or a strong passion in that moment, it doesn’t usually last long,” said Dr. Michael Bennett, a psychiatrist and co-author of two self-help books. “But if you build up a process where you’re thinking harder about what’s good for you, you’re changing the structure of your life, you’re bringing people into your life who will reinforce that resolution, then I think you have a fighting chance.”
- Time-bound. Like “achievable,” the timeline toward reaching your goal should be realistic, too. That means giving yourself enough time to do it with lots of smaller intermediate goals set up along the way. “Focus on these small wins so you can make gradual progress,” Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit” and a former New York Times writer, said. “If you’re building a habit, you’re planning for the next decade, not the next couple of months.”
Create Your Plan
Your end goal won’t just magically appear. Here are ways to figure out how to get there.
Because you won’t just wake up and change your life, you not only need a plan for what to do, but also for what roadblocks you’ll come across along the way.
If you’re trying to form or break a habit, Mr. Duhigg suggested breaking down that habit into its three parts: a cue, a routine and a reward.
Bad Habit: I check Twitter too often.
Cue: I feel isolated.
Routine: I check Twitter.
Reward: I feel connected.
Way to change the behavior: Instead of checking Twitter, get up and talk to a colleague.
What about if you have a really bad health habit?
Bad Habit: I smoke.
Cue: I’m tired.
Routine: I smoke a cigarette.
Reward: I’m stimulated.
Way to change the behavior: Instead of smoking a cigarette, replace the stimulus with something else, like coffee.
Or if your habit affects your whole day?
Bad Habit: I don’t get enough sleep at night.
Cue: I feel like I need time to myself in the evening.
Routine: I stay up too late watching TV.
Reward: I’m entertained.
Way to change the behavior: Instead of staying up late to watch TV, carve out special time each day to spend by yourself, even if that may mean asking for help with your children or taking a break from work each day.
Make it Personal
Of course, the cue and routine for a common bad habit, like smoking, is as individual as the person trying to quit. You may need to do some work to figure out what the real cue for the habit you want to change is, and then what will replace it.
Both the cue and reward should be easy and obvious. Let’s look at one example in depth. For running, a cue could be just putting on your running clothes, even if at first you don’t do anything after that. “Oftentimes when people have never exercised before, and researchers are working with them to get them to exercise, the first week is: You should just put on your running clothes. Don’t even leave the house,” Mr. Duhigg said. Then add the first step in the new routine: Put on running clothes, walk around the block. “You want to create an environment where you’re making very slow progress that is guaranteed to deliver victories to you,” he said.
And then the reward at the end of the action must be an actual reward, too, so that it reinforces the routine and makes you want to do it. “Otherwise your brain won’t latch onto the behavior,” Mr. Duhigg said.
For example, if you run in the morning then rush through your shower and your commute, you might end up at your desk sweaty, so in effect “you’re punishing yourself for running,” he said. Your brain will pick up on that punishment and push back against the intended activity. Your resolution didn’t necessarily fail because you failed, but because you were trying to do it at the wrong time, which resulted in a punishment instead of a reward at the end. For running, a reward can be a nice long shower, a piece of chocolate or indulging in a feeling of pride, which can be reinforced by tracking your running in a journal and writing that down.
But while your plan should be realistic and encouraging, it should also allow for inevitable hurdles that are going to crop up. Pauline Wallin, a psychologist and author of “Taming Your Inner Brat,” said any resolution plan should include room for mistakes. “You’re there for the long haul. You have to expect slip ups,” she said. “There will be times when you will say, ‘I’ll make a mess of things and I’m just going to start again tomorrow.’ Don’t berate yourself. Focus on what you’re doing good for yourself rather than what mistake you made,” she said.
Leap Over Resolution Hurdles
No one’s perfect, and your quest for your resolution won’t be either. But you can get back on track.
What’s the best way to tackle problems that arise on your way to success? First, remember no matter how well you plan, change is hard. “You’re up against a part of yourself that’s never going to change. It’s always going to push at you in certain directions that are unhealthy. You’re going to have to really create something step by step in order to manage it,” Dr. Bennett said.
So before hurdles get in your way, make sure you have a plan to jump over them. Here are a few common problems people face in achieving their goals:
It’s too much and I have so far to go. A perceived lack of progress can be frustrating. Dr. Wallin suggested focusing on whatever the smaller number it is: your progress, or how much you have left to do.
This “small number” technique is based on a 2012 study published in The Journal of Consumer Research that found that focusing on the smaller number in reaching a goal kept people more motivated. So, for example, if you want to run five miles, which of the following thoughts is more likely to keep you going?
- I’ve already run one mile and in another mile I’ll double it
- I’ve run just one mile and I still have four more to go
According to this theory, you’re likely better off with the first one.
So when you are first starting on your journey toward your resolution, instead of looking at the big number left to get there, look at what you’ve already achieved. Toward the end when that goal number shrinks, it’s perfectly fine to look at your progress, but zero in on what little remains before you hit your goal.
I’m trying to stay positive, but it’s not working. Positive thinking isn’t going to be enough, said Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University and author of “Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.” In fact, positive thinking may be the thing holding you back.
In her studies, she’s found that “the more positively people fantasize and daydream about their future success, the less well they do in terms of having actual success,” she said.
“They already experienced it positively in their minds, and then they relax,” she said. “These positive fantasies are helpful for exploring the different possibility for the future, but they are a hardship when it comes to actually putting in the effort and the energy that wish fulfillment actually needs. They sap energy.”
A better technique than positive thinking? Try to be positive, but realistic. Yes, imagine the goal or positive fantasy, but then look at what obstacles are in the way and how to get over them. Dr. Oettingen calls this technique W.O.O.P. — Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan.
- Wish: What do you want?
- Outcome: What would the ideal outcome be? What will your life look like when you hit your goal?
- Obstacle: You know yourself. What will try to stop you? What has sidelined you before?
- Plan: How will you get around it?
Answering these questions doesn’t need to take a lot of time. Dr. Oettingen suggested three to five minutes to start; make sure you’re in a place where you won’t be interrupted. (Want to try it? Here’s an app that might be useful.)
I can’t stick to this routine. Maybe your routine simply isn’t flexible enough.
In a 2015 study, researchers paid two groups of people to go to the gym for a month. The first group was paid if they started a workout within a two-hour window they chose in advance. The second group was paid whenever they went to the gym. After that month, researchers found that the second group was more likely to stick with the gym habit.
The takeaway? Set a plan, but be flexible when life gets in the way.
“It’s critical to learn how to have a backup plan rather than just throw your hands up and give up,” said Dr. Milkman, who conducted the study.
I’m getting too much outside pressure. This could be a sign that you’re trying to change for the wrong reasons. Have a talk with yourself about whether you want to make this change for you or because someone else told you to. “Always try to put a beat in there where you consult with yourself,” said Dr. Bennett.
I slipped up. The first time you revert to your old ways, forget it. “If you screw up, what you should do the first time is just pretend it didn’t happen. Don’t engage in that negative mindset,” Mr. Duhigg said. “Just wake up the next day and pretend you didn’t slip and go back to whatever the pattern was you were trying to encourage.”
If you keep slipping up, instead of blaming yourself, try to look at your behavior to figure out where the process is breaking down. In “The Power of Habit,” Mr. Duhigg writes about a man who had tried to quit smoking dozens of times until he identified the reason he smoked was because it made him feel calm. Then, he tried to find a calming substitute for smoking and kept failing, eventually landing on meditation, which allowed him to quit smoking.
“If a choice doesn’t succeed that doesn’t mean that we blame ourselves. It means we have more data for our experience and we’re probably going to succeed better next time,” Mr. Duhigg said.
Find a Community
You don’t need to do it alone, especially if your resolution starts in the new year when you’ll have plenty of company in trying to make a life change.
State Your Goal
You don’t necessarily need to find a special group, but you should let a person or two know that you’re setting a goal. “Tell them your plan and ask them to hold you accountable,” Dr. Milkman said. That way it’s a public commitment, and you might feel like you have a community supporting you that wants to see you succeed.
You can also use social media to make your goal public, like posting on Facebook that you will learn to cross-stitch by July 1, along with updates of your hobby in progress. But that can be a double-edged sword, Dr. Wallin said. You might get a boatload of sympathy at a time when you really need a strong push, or even worse, you’ll get unsolicited feedback from someone you haven’t spoken to since seventh grade. “You’ll get a lot of advice, which most people don’t want but are going to get anyway,” she said.
Stand to Lose Something
Namely, money. That could mean you give your brother $100 and you can’t get it back until you reach your goal. Or, for something more formal and formatted, Dr. Milkman recommends stickK.com, a website where you make a financial pledge that you’ll lose if you don’t reach your goal.
“If there’s money on the line, the consequences are much larger,” Dr. Milkman said. “There are really stakes in the game.”
Find Likeminded Resolvers
You may find online support groups and forums (on Facebook or not) full of people who are reaching for the same goal. But real life groups can help too. Mr. Duhigg said that one reason Alcoholics Anonymous (and other Anonymous groups) works for a lot of people is, first because it’s a community, but also because there’s a belief in something else that isn’t necessarily God. For example, people have used a belief in a general higher power, even in nature, to help them achieve their goals.
“Belief is a metaphorical muscle that with practice gets strong and easier to use,” he said. “Ultimately people who are looking to change a really alluring and destructive behavior like alcoholism need to believe in the capacity to change.” Support groups can help because it’s a group setting with a lot of social reinforcement and features examples of people who have changed.
Cut Back on Bad Influences
While some friends and family want to help, others can hold you back, especially if your resolutions to cut back on a bad behavior means you can’t participate in that behavior with them or they see your wanting to change as a rejection of the way they live their lives.
For those who push back against your decision to change – your happy hour buddies, the smoking crew at work – Dr. Bennett suggested creating a script that says what you are trying to do without any shame behind it. Look at it like a memo to the people in your life about the change you hope to make. “You’re trying to take an administrative position on the issue with yourself and with others. You’re not trying to get emotional about it,” he said.
For example, if you are trying to quit smoking and getting ribbing from a group of people you usually smoke with at work, try this: “I really enjoyed our time outside, but I’m really sorry that I have to back off now because stopping smoking is so important to my health. Hanging out with the gang during the smoke sessions would be more than I could tolerate. Again: My regrets.”
If you clearly state what you’re trying to do, and that person continually pushes back, it could be a sign that the relationship isn’t a good one for you. This can often be an issue in a relationship where one partner continues with a destructive habit when the other is trying to quit. “You really need to ask yourself whether this is a red flag about something in a relationship that can be very dangerous for you that you want to be prepared for in advance,” Dr. Bennett said.
If You Miss Your Goal
You didn’t fail. You’re your own experiment, so here’s what to try on your second, third or 20th attempt.
First and foremost: If you fail at your resolution attempt, don’t beat yourself up, and know you’re not alone. After all, Dr. Milkman points out, “we struggle to do the things that we know are good for us because we give into impulses for instant gratification.”
Feel Free to Start Fresh
Want to try again? Remember, a resolution doesn’t need to be tied to New Year’s. “It can be following a weekend, following a birthday,” she said. So if you missed your New Year’s goal, you can start again tomorrow, on a Monday, after Valentine’s Day or any marker that means something to you, just as long as you’re ready to give it another go. It won’t guarantee success, but you don’t need to wait until another year comes around on the calendar to give it another go.
And be kind to yourself. “We talk in much harsher tones to ourselves than we would to other people,” said Dr. Wallin. “We wouldn’t say to a kid trying to learn something ‘that’s so stupid’ but that’s how we talk to ourselves.”
When resolutions run off the rails or fall apart but you still want to try again, talk to yourself like “a child who’s feeling discouraged. You wouldn’t say ‘that’s because you’re an idiot.’ You would say ‘come on you can do it.’”
Dr. Wallin offered a few more common self-put downs, and ways to flip the script:
- Instead of “I blew it. What’s the point now?”
…say, “That was a bad decision, but a good learning opportunity. What’s my next step?”
- Instead of, “I’m SO hungry!”
…say, “I’m hungry, which means it’s working! It’s a bit uncomfortable, but I’ve gotten through worse.”
- Instead of, “My legs are SO sore. I can’t possibly work out today”
…say, “Let’s give my leg muscles a rest today. What can I do to work my arms?”
or: “Of course my muscles are sore. They’re supposed to be. It will get easier.”
- Instead of, “This is too hard!”
…say, “Making it through today is going to really build my confidence.”