The secret to sticking to New Year's resolutions

Make a few simple changes and finally reach your goals.

After December 31st celebrations, many of us wake up the next day ready to start fresh and commit to New Year’s resolutions. Whether it’s slimming down, making more money, or simply flossing your teeth, this is the year that’s finally going to be different. But will it?

According to Statistic Brain Research Institute, 41% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Last year, losing weight and eating healthy came out on top. Self-improvements and better financial decisions were also big.

Maybe not surprisingly, the same study found that less than 10% of people typically claim that they are successful in achieving their goals each year. But that’s no reason to give up completely on New Year’s resolutions just yet. By just making a few simple changes with how you approach your goals, you can make this the year of real change.

Start small and know what you want

Looking at the most common resolutions, it’s easy to see why most fail. Popular resolutions include meeting your soulmate, working out more often, finding a better job or doing more good deeds. A generic goal demands a generic plan.

“These are what I call anemic intentions. They have no strength to them and that’s problematic,” says Dr. Timothy A. Pychyl, an author and psychologist who specializes in procrastination solutions.

Would you find it easier to wake up tomorrow and find the love of your life, or to commit to signing up for an online dating site and reaching out to three new people? Start small and begin by picking just one habit where you can make an easy action plan.

“The other thing is you have to look at your New Year's resolutions and ask yourself: is this what I want to do, or is this what I feel that I should do? The ‘shoulds’ won’t go far,” says Pychyl.

Rather than think that you should lose 10 pounds, reframe it to what you actually want to achieve, such as, “I want to fit into my skinny jeans,” or “I want to run for 30-minutes straight without stopping.” Instead of saying “I want to make more money,” determine your actual goal, such as, “I want to earn enough to make a down payment on a house,” or “I want to save 30% of my annual salary.”

Consider it routine

Another main roadblock many people stumble upon with resolutions is treating them as something entirely new and challenging. When something disrupts your normal routine, it’s easy to find a way out of it.

Pinpoint a behavior that can easily become a habit to help you reach your goal. Just as you wouldn’t leave the house before brushing your teeth, this could be as simple as spending five minutes learning a new language or doing 30 squats before you get dressed.

Set your intentions

One proven way to reach goals? Setting what psychologist Peter M. Gollwitzer calls implementation intentions. These are “if-then” or “when-then” plans that remind you of what you want your behavior to be.

In the example of weight loss, this can be as simple as: If I set the table, then I set a smaller plate for myself. If I finish my first helping, then I excuse myself from the table. When I get home from work, then I hop on the exercise bike.

If the goal is saving money: If I spend $10 eating lunch out once a week, then I will pack a lunch for the rest of the days. When I receive my paycheck, I will deposit 15% into my savings account.

Pychyl worked with one man who had a simple resolution to start flossing his teeth, something he never remembered or liked to do. He set his intention: When I put down the toothbrush, I will pick up the floss. “It was a game changer,” says Pychyl. “His entire attitude changed.”

Create an environment for success

You’ll also want to set up an environment that works for you, not against you. If exercise is your goal, promise to hit the gym with a friend or keep your workout clothes and running shoes by your bed so they’re the first thing you see when you wake up. If losing weight is your resolution, keeping unhealthy snacks in the house is an easy way to set yourself up for failure. Try keeping fruits and vegetables front and center in your fridge, so they’re the first things you see.

Small changes can be a big deal. “We know that if we set specific intentions where the cue for action is in the environment, we’re more likely to succeed. It helps us fix our habits,” explains Pychyl. “This is crucial to your success.”

Focus on actions, not emotions

“Procrastination isn’t a time management problem. Procrastination is an emotion management problem,” agrees Pychyl. “Instead of saying, ‘I don’t want to do this, I’ll deal with this tomorrow,’ you have to be ready to face everything you don’t want to do.”

The one thing keeping you from your resolution might be something as simple as getting out of bed earlier in the morning. “We have to get past that resistance of, ‘I don’t feel like it,’ or ‘I’m too tired,’” says Pychyl.

While it might not be easy to quiet these emotions, Pychyl thinks the answer is to “ask yourself what’s the next action, to constantly move away from focusing on feelings to focusing on action.” That can mean jumping out of bed as soon as those thoughts start creeping up, until waking up earlier becomes routine.

Making big changes can be uncomfortable, but if you accept that upfront, changing your habits becomes easy.

It’s OK to fail as long as you start again

Celebrating success is another great way to stay on track. Small wins can keep you going. And small wins can quickly add up to big accomplishments.

But even with the best, most well-intentioned plan, one thing is key—accepting that at some point you’re going to fail, and that’s OK.

“What we’ve learned in our research is unless we forgive ourselves we’re going to want to continue to avoid action,” says Pychyl. “If you forgive yourself, you have a better chance of success, and you will be willing to try again.”

And that may be just the key to really making this year unlike any other. When February comes, you can fall off the wagon. Just make sure you get right back on it again.

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