If you rang in the New Year full of good intentions but quickly slipped back into old habits, you certainly aren’t alone. According to research conducted in 2003 at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania and published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, just 19 percent of people manage to keep their New Year’s resolutions for two years.
Yet, every year on January 1, millions of people still swear this is the year they’ll lose weight, go vegan, run a marathon, pay down credit cards, learn Mandarin, read a book a month, volunteer more and clean out the attic, too.
“A lot of resolutions are huge, like ‘This year I will go out and swim the Pacific!’” says Tarane Sondoozi, PsyD, a Scripps psychologist. “In that case, resolutions can be counterproductive. You set yourself up for failure, get intimidated, stumble once and ultimately give up. It’s much better to set your sights on something smaller, like, ‘I will get my toes wet.’”
Scripps psychologist Jonathan Gale, PhD, says making all-or-nothing, all-at-once, arbitrarily timed resolutions is not necessarily the best way to approach healthy lifestyle changes. “Unfortunately, real change takes more than a single resolution for most people. Complex change usually involves a few steps forward and a couple back,” says Dr. Gale. “When we try to break destructive habits or build healthier new ones, failure is a part of success. The secret is not January 1 – it’s stepping on the road to change and staying there. The critical thing is to keep moving, despite setbacks.”
Accentuate the positive
Framing a resolution as giving up something you enjoy may undermine your efforts. Focus instead on positive outcomes. “I will feel great and look ravishing in a smaller swimsuit” sounds a lot more motivating than “I will lose 15 pounds by summertime,” doesn’t it?
Be clear about the reason for your goal
If you’re in danger of being crushed by falling canned goods every time you open a cabinet, a resolution to reduce clutter makes perfect sense. But some people take on the wrong goals for the wrong reasons. If you’re doing something to please other people or to live up to some arbitrary standard, you’re less likely to achieve your goal. Do you really want to run a competitive 10K or half-marathon? Or would working your way up to daily 30-minute walks be more sustainable?
Break big goals into smaller goals
Subgoals reinforce change by creating frequent milestones on the road to change. If you’re trying to stick to a healthier way of eating, celebrate each week that you’ve eaten a salad before your main course, for example. Look for quick, easy wins and use those to build momentum.
Remove obstacles and temptations
If you resolved to drink less alcohol, you shouldn’t keep a liquor cabinet stocked with all the ingredients for a pitcher of fruity-tinis. The same logic works with almost all resolutions. Look for ways re-arrange your schedule and environment to support – not sabotage – your goals. .
Use outside support if it’s available
Whatever your goals – from reducing weight or alcohol consumption to cutting back on overspending or anger management, there are online and face-to-face resources to help you change. Your primary care physician can point you in the direction of groups, counselors and community-based support, both professional and peer-led, to help you navigate slips and setbacks on your way to success.
Schedule regular check-ins
Whether you gauge your progress once a week or once a month, regular assessment will will help you stay the course.
Finally, Dr. Sondoozi stresses that your approach to your resolutions should include humor, fun and being kind to yourself. “This year, I’m giving myself a break,” she says. “I resolved to enjoy myself, to live as fully as I can, to free myself from unreasonable and unrealistic goals, to celebrate who and where and what I am, where I’ve been and where I’m going. This was also my resolution last year, and I kept it!”