Struggling to keep on top of those New Year’s resolutions? Aren’t we all. These tips should help keep you on track if you set the bar too high.
The first step to achieving your resolution is to set a goal you can actually reach.
While a lot of people who make New Year’s resolutions generally find them hard to keep, those who are successful make reasonable ones,” says Deborah Serani, PsyD, author of Depression in Later Life.
“Unrealistic resolutions set you up for failure.”
For example, instead of vowing to get supermodel skinny, set a plan to help you get to a healthier weight.
Holding a grudge? Sitting on a massive credit card bill? In a fight with your mum? Don’t panic, there’s still time to fix all these things and start your new year off right.
Once you start reassessing your life, you’ll probably get overwhelmed thinking about all the ways you think you should change.
“Cutting too many things at once may backfire,” says Frank Lipman, MD, bestselling author and founder of Be Well and the Eleven Eleven Wellness Centre in New York City.
Instead, slow down, and pick one thing to focus on first.
“Aiming for one change at a time is what brings the gold,” Dr. Serani says.
How do you reach a goal, change your life, realise a dream? If you delve into the backstories of successful people, a common theme emerges: They think big.
One of the sneaky ways you’re sabotaging your own New Year’s resolutions is by being too general.
“So, once you’ve set your goal of, let’s say, losing weight, be specific,” Dr. Serani says.
“How are you going to lose the weight? You could say, ‘I’m going to join a gym and get into shape,’ but it would be better to say, ‘I’ll get to the gym two times a week.’”
She advises setting goals that are SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound) to help you stick to your plan.
Too often, when faced with a fork in the road – whether picking up and moving cross-country or having a child – we fret and dither so long that choice is no longer an option. Here’s how to take the bull by the horns, so to speak.
How can you set the foundation for the plan to accomplish your goal?
If your resolution is to “eat healthier,” you first need to understand the root of your bad eating habits.
Find your baseline as a starting point, says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies.
“Write down what you eat and track your eating habits for three days, then look at them and evaluate them honestly.”
You’ll be able to see a pattern (for example, late-night snacking or eating out for lunch) and then identify places to improve.
Need some motivation to get started? Check out these rousing speeches.
Once you have your goal in mind, try breaking it down into steps; focusing on each sub-goal can help you organise your plan for achieving the bigger task.
“By creating ‘micro goals’ every day, you will get the ‘ding ding ding’ feeling of dopamine and keep charging on to accomplish your long-term ‘macro’ goal,” says Christopher Bergland, endurance athlete and coach, in Psychology Today.
Looking to get your brain back in shape? Try these games that tap your innate genius to build a happy and resilient brain.
Breaking down goals is also part of a strategy for gradual change, which is much easier to adapt to than a radical shift.
“Pinpoint just one or two small improvements you can make, such as adding in more veggies at lunch or by turning off the TV when you eat dinner [for a resolution to eat better],” Palinski-Wade says.
“After you adjust to that small change, identify another small area to work on and keep building from there.”
Make sure your own brain wiring is not letting you down. We all have an ‘inner critic’ who second-guesses our choices, and lobs insults about our perceived shortcomings. Here’s how to silence that voice.
Studies show that recording your progress can increase your success.
It can be as simple as writing down your goal for the day and then checking it off once you’ve done it.
“Tracking your progress is very helpful for behavioural change,” Dr. Serani says.
If you’re trying to lose weight, stop smoking or save more money, the numbers will show how you’re doing.
The more weight you lose, the harder your body fights to hold on to the calories it gets and the fewer calories it burns.
But what if you could turbo-change your weight loss efforts?
You can by boosting your metabolism with these helpful tips.
Some resolutions can be more difficult to check off on a list.
“There are other behaviours, like maybe you want to be kinder or more patient, that are harder to quantify and more tricky to keep track of,” Dr. Serani says.
Be creative in how you measure your progress.
For example, if your resolution is to re-energise your marriage, schedule a weekly date night and check it off afterward.
Remember when you were in the honeymoon phase of your relationship? The good news is you can get it back.
Set yourself up for success by making your first small goal one you know you can achieve.
“Focus on changes that are so small they seem easy, like walking for five minutes on your lunch break,” Palinski-Wade says.
Guaranteeing you’ll accomplish something will give you the boost of confidence you need to continue.
Prepare for your life to change forever with this one question you need to ask yourself every day, according to a billionaire.
As you achieve each small success, give yourself a pat on the back.
“Tell yourself something positive, like ‘I did this first part!’ or ‘This feels good,’” Dr. Serani says.
“Short-term reinforcement is vital to keeping newly learned behaviors from slipping out of your control.”
Plus, cheering on your little victories will help keep you on course more than waiting for some big payoff months away.
The Biggest Loser co-creator J.D. Roth has seen the most unlikely people achieve the most incredible goals. Here’s what sets them apart.
Another part of your SMART goal is the “T,” which represents a time-bound or time-sensitive aspect.
Having a specific date or event in mind can light a fire under you.
Sign yourself up for a 5km run, for instance.
“Using a particular event works like setting a deadline, which can keep you more motivated,” Brigitte Zeitlin, RD, owner of BZ Nutrition, tells Women’s Health.
Meeting that deadline can then give you the momentum to schedule another, more challenging goal.
Although resolution-keeping includes meeting short-term or time-sensitive goals, this ideally leads to new habits for the long-term.
“Quick fixes won’t make you healthier long-term, so you shouldn’t focus on a change you only plan to make for a few weeks or months,” says Palinski-Wade.
“Ask yourself if you can foresee yourself sticking to this goal next year and in five years – your resolution should be focused on a lifestyle change you can maintain for life.”
Resolution-keeping is not an exact science.
You can try different approaches for achieving your goal to see what works for you.
“If you have not been able to do the desired plan, it means it’s not the right plan – it doesn’t mean you’re a failure,” writes Linda Walter, LCSW, for Psychology Today.
“Change the plan until you find one you’re able to accomplish.”
Even after you find the plan that’s right for you, check in periodically to see if it’s still working.
“Your goals should be fluid to match your lifestyle,” Palinski-Wade says.
Your life will change periodically, so your plan for achieving your resolutions may have to adapt as well.
“There may be a few months where work is crazy and you can’t walk at lunch, so you need to focus on other ways to fit in fitness,” she says.
“Or, it may have been practical to cook dinner every night before you had kids, and now it may make more sense to meal prep in advance for the week.”
Research has shown that focusing on the “how” of a goal instead of the “what” actually helps you achieve it.
In one experiment, researchers had participants throw darts. One group was asked to get the highest score (an “outcome goal”); another was asked to work on perfecting how they held and threw the darts (“process goal”).
Guess which actually had the higher score?
And once the process goal group switched to an outcome goal, they had the skills to achieve the highest score of all.
Knowing family and friends are behind you can give you a boost when sticking to your resolutions.
“Change rarely happens on our own – we generally have others who help us along the way,” Dr. Serani says.
“When you ask family and friends for support, they can help keep you on track. Just make sure your support squad are trusted others who want you to succeed, and not toxic people who want to see you fail.”
Otherwise known as a gym buddy, another person with the same resolution (in this case, to get in shape) can share your goal, motivate you, and hold you accountable.
One study found that those who had a workout companion actually exercised more.
And this principle doesn’t just apply to fitness – if your resolution is to read more, form a book club with another friend or friends to keep you on track.
If you can’t find anyone IRL to join in your New Year’s resolutions, you can always look online. Support groups exist for just about any type of lifestyle change you want to make.
A recent study found dieters who made more connections in online weight-loss communities lost more weight.
“I think it’s great to be part of a community where you can talk about the challenges and successes involved in your behavioural change,” Dr. Serani says.
Announcing your intentions on Facebook, recording your progress on Instagram, or starting a blog about your journey can be a tool to keep you on track.
Studies have found that public commitment and a declaration of intent online to be associated with success in reaching personal goals.
But don’t do it if you’ll feel too exposed.
“For some, this can be a great way to increase accountability and motivation, but for others, this added pressure may cause them to feel ashamed of even small slip-ups and derail progress,” Palinski-Wade says.
“This depends on the individual, so focus on what works best for you.”
Sign up for a daily newsletter that inspires or motivates you.
“Anything that gives you a boost of confidence and helps encourage you to make positive changes will do the trick,” writes fitness enthusiast and author Denise Austin.
Or try a compliment app like Attaboy, designed by psychologist Dan Ariely at Duke University’s Center for Behavioral Economics.
From tracking your progress biometrically to customizing workouts to helping you become more organised, technology can be a great tool for the modern resolution-keeper.
No matter what your goal is, there’s an app for that: online budgeting tools can help you be more frugal; resume building programs can help you get a better job; and recipe websites and apps can help you make healthier meals.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), minor missteps are normal because perfection is unattainable, so you shouldn’t let them derail you completely.
“Don’t bash yourself if you slip up,” Dr. Lipman says.
“Be patient with yourself.”
Think of how you’d respond to a friend, and treat yourself the same way.
Besides forgiving yourself, it’s equally important to get back up and try again.
“Tomorrow is a new day, so just hop back on your plan,” Dr. Lipman says.
Success in achieving your resolution is about building resilience so you can continue no matter what happens.
Research has shown that the more resilient you are, the less distress you experience after failure, so you’ll be more likely to move on.
Success in your resolutions will depend on the belief that you can do it, which psychologists refer to as self-efficacy.
Although building confidence can be a resolution itself, it’s also necessary for any other goals you want to achieve.
Start by editing your internal dialogue.
“Stop allowing yourself to subconsciously undermine your confidence,” says weight-loss and life coach Charles D’Angelo.
“When you find yourself saying things like, ‘You’re not going to be able to do that’ or any other negative comments, edit them out.”
Changing bad habits or establishing new and better ones requires a shift in how your brain actually works.
A 2016 study from the University of California San Diego showed that the brain’s circuits for habitual and goal-directed action compete for control.
You must understand how habits work to rewire your brain and your patterns,” Dr. Lipman says.
“Acknowledging that change is needed is key.”
By being aware of your thought patterns, you can override your habitual thinking with new, goal-oriented directives.
Being mindful is a way to think purposefully about your habitual actions and has been shown in studies to alter mental processes.
“Your thinking is highly programmable and can be altered,” says Sukey Novogratz, co-author of the meditation guidebook Just Sit.
“Mindfulness will make you more focused and present for the job at hand.”
How can this self-awareness help you achieve your goals? “It forces us to take a moment and to see what we are actually thinking,” she says.
In a moment when you’re grabbing a doughnut, for instance, you may realise that you’re actually bored, not hungry.
Then, you’ll put down the caloric treat and call a friend instead.
The practice of gratitude can help you change your thinking in order to achieve your goals.
Immediately upon awakening, think about five goodies you are thankful for, says doctor William Sears, author of The Dr. Sears T5 Wellness Plan.
“Beginning your day with these happy thoughts sends messages throughout the emotional centers of your brain, ‘Hey brain, this is how I expect you to behave today,’” he says.
Dr. Sears also says finding a “gratitude mantra” can help you focus on your resolution and avoid the distractions that can lead you back into old habits.
“A mantra is your personal peace recipe, a phrase that protects your mind from disturbing clutter,” he says.
A technique he likes is flotation therapy.
“While walking, enjoy the floaty feelings while synchronising with your gratitude mantra.”
Like tapping to a beat, matching your mantra to your movement helps ingrain it into your brain.
“Meditation is a daily practice that builds discipline and resilience,” says Elizabeth Novogratz, the other co-author of Just Sit.
“The more committed and consistent that you are with your practice, the more you’ll see discipline seeping into other areas of your life.”
This mental practice can take you out of your head and away from negative thinking, she says, to make you more zoned into your goal.
Another mental trick to keep you focused on your resolution is to visualise your success.
Studies have shown imagining yourself achieving your goal creates new neurological pathways that help you actually do it.
“Visualisation makes goals specific, and energy will flow to what you focus on,” Sukey Novogratz says.
“Visualisation makes us stop so that we can take back our thoughts and make them clear, put them in a positive light, and align them with what we want.”
Take visualisation one step further by actually making a visual representation of your resolution.
A “vision board” can simply be images and phrases made into a collage to inspire you toward your goal.
“Grounding techniques like this help you stay focused and help you visualise your dreams,” Dr. Serani says.
Hang your vision board in your home or office as a reminder to stay on track.
Writing down both your intentions themselves and your experiences along the way can help you achieve success, says entrepreneur and motivational speaker Tony Robbins.
“Write your goals down – not on a computer, but on paper, or in a journal,” Robbins told CNBC.
“There’s something that happens when we write something down.”
Studies have shown journaling can actually make you happier, and a happy mindset is crucial for success.
To truly succeed, your motivation has to come from within, because outside pressure rarely works.
“Think about why you want to make the change – is it important to you, or is it mostly influenced by others, like your doctor, your spouse, or a friend?”
Deborah Tate, MD, an obesity and behavioural researcher at the University of North Carolina, told the US-based National Institutes of Health.
“Research suggests that if it’s something you really want for yourself, if it’s meaningful to you, you’re more likely to stick to it.”
Even if you think you’re self-motivated, make sure you have a good enough reason “why” to stick to your resolution.
“The belief that we ‘should’ do something leads to low-quality motivation,” writes motivational scientist Michelle Segar, PhD, for US News and World Report.
“People who stick to their resolutions dump the should-based ‘whys.’
Instead, they resolve to change their behavior because they truly want to improve areas of their daily life.”
Research backs this up.
So instead of thinking you “should” lose weight, your motivation might be that you want to have more energy to play outside with your kids.
Elizabeth Novogratz says you’ll have more success keeping your resolution if you throw yourself in full-force.
“What is essential in achieving a goal is committing 100 percent – even 99 percent will throw us off the path,” she says.
“Think about an exercise program: Being ‘in’ 99 percent can mean flaking on rainy days or staying in bed if you’re not in the mood.”
The 100 percent rule, developed by author Jack Canfield, says going all in is actually easier because you don’t have to stress about whether you are or aren’t going to stick to it each day, and you won’t waste valuable energy making excuses.
According to Novogratz, this total commitment can actually be freeing.
“There’s nothing left to resist.”
Nothing gets you going like a little healthy competition, so enlist your resolutions buddy or a friend as a sparring partner.
As shown in a University of Pennsylvania study, “friendly competition may increase motivation and increase accountability,” Palinski-Wade says.
“Just make sure if you do this to compete with someone of a similar fitness level so it doesn’t become discouraging rather than motivating.”
And they don’t have to be fitness challenges – you can see who can read the most books in a month or save the most money.
Although it’s fun to compete, don’t focus too much on comparing yourself to others when it comes to achieving goals.
Instead, aim to increase your own personal best. In this way, even if you lose a competition, you may “beat” your personal score, which will keep your motivation up.
“No two people are alike – goals and fitness levels vary,” Palinski-Wade says.
“If you focus on others’ goals and progress, it will sidetrack you from what really matters.”
Talking to yourself is actually a good thing, but choosing how you talk to yourself about your goal can impact your success.
“The key to change has a great deal to do with how we talk to ourselves,” Dr. Serani says.
Words are important in framing your thinking about your resolution, so trying using “want” instead of “have to,” even if you don’t quite feel it just yet.
This might help you fake it till you make it.
You don’t even need to say New Year’s resolutions.
“‘Intention’ is a great alternative – it implies a combination of wanting and expecting, which are both positive and empowering.”
Lifting the expectations and baggage associated with resolutions can leave you mentally free to pursue your goal.
Another mental strategy that has been shown in a meta-analysis to help achieve goals is called “implementation intentions.”
These are “if/then” statements that help you direct your behaviour.
For example, “If I feel myself craving sweets, then I’ll have fruit,” or, “If I’ve watched TV for one hour, then I’ll turn it off.”
This technique can help you formulate exactly what you need to do to keep your resolutions.
Although you might think making a slight tweak to your habit might ease you out of it (for example, simply taking a break outside and not smoking if you’re trying to quit), but Dr. Lipman says a clean break is better.
“Rather than trying to make enjoyable, unhealthy habits into healthy ones, I would recommend finding new ways to enjoy yourself, and doing your best to leave habits that don’t support you in the past,” he says.
Breaking the cycle of a bad habit also means removing temptation.
“When your motivation is low, your environment becomes all the more powerful in terms of helping or hindering your healthy living intentions,” writes registered dietitian Patricia Bannan, author of Eat Right When Time is Tight, for Foxnews.com.
“If you make healthy foods easily accessible throughout your kitchen and workplace, it’s more likely you will eat them first.”
Or, if you’re trying to quit smoking or cut down on drinking, remove cigarettes and alcohol from your home.
Out with the old and in with the new!
As you remove objects associated with bad habits, get new ones that will keep you motivated toward your goal.
For an exercise resolution, “something new that can help to get you excited about working out can always help,” Palinski-Wade says.
“A new workout outfit you feel good in may boost your confidence to hit the gym, or new equipment may change up an old routine and make exercising feel more fun.”
Although your biggest motivator comes from within, little prizes for good behaviour can also have a positive effect.
“Reward yourself for all your efforts,” Dr. Lipman says. Austin suggests a day of pampering; nothing like a mani-pedi, haircut, or massage to help you feel good about your accomplishments.
Just make sure your “treat” isn’t an excuse to slide back into an old habit.
A cupcake is not a reward for working out!
As we’ve been learning, humans are creatures of habit, so make room for your resolution in your daily routine, whether it be to make healthy meals, read before bed, or walk at lunchtime.
“Every time you repeat something, you are actually helping your brain create neural pathways,” Laurent Amzallag, fitness coach, tells NBC News.
“Do you ever think about brushing your teeth at night? Not anymore, because you have done it for so long that it has become automatic.”
When scheduling a time to work your resolution in, consider the morning for maximum impact.
Research from Europe suggests that morning behaviours are easier to turn into habits.
This may be because cortisol levels, which have a role in forming habits, are higher in the morning.
You can make your resolution less of a chore if you find a way to work towards it that you enjoy.
For example, exercise doesn’t just mean going to the gym.
“Ask yourself, ‘How do I have fun moving my body?’” Palinski-Wade says.
“If you love music, take up dance lessons or dance to music you enjoy. Try a new sport or activity, or just take a walk outside.”
If your goal is to read more, you don’t have to tackle heavy nonfiction.
Find a sci-fi or even young adult series that gets you into the habit.
Everyone should know the “20-second rule” for breaking bad habits – or creating new ones.
The theory is that making something easy will make you more likely to do it.
This is supported by research that found the closer gym members were to their location, the more likely they were to go.
So, find a gym that’s nearby, place a book on your bedside table, or keep your guitar in your living room to make it easy to pick up and practice.
You need to nurture your body if you want to change your lifestyle.
“When you sleep well, you have more energy and motivation, you feel better, and you have more mental clarity to do things like learning something new or getting organised,” says Richard Shane, PhD, creator of the Sleep Easily method.
Sleep may be especially important for a weight-loss resolution.
“Studies show people who sleep poorly have higher levels of ghrelin, the hormone that increases appetite, and lower levels of leptin, the hormone that decreases appetite,” he says.
“Whatever way you plan to lose weight, it will be much easier to succeed if you also make more time for sleep.”
As the saying goes, it’s about the journey, not the destination.
If you reframe your resolution as an adventure, you can more easily handle the twists and turns that will inevitably come along.
Sticking with your resolutions are in large part about feelings of control, according to research from US-based Rutgers University, so seeing difficulties as obstacles to climb rather than insurmountable problems can help you feel more in charge of your destiny.
Sign up here to get Reader’s Digest’s favourite stories straight to your inbox!