New Year’s resolutions are made with the best of intentions. As we look back at the last year, and forward at the next, we determine the habits we want to build and the behaviors we want to change in order to make our lives better. But judging by the bleak statistics — about 80 percent of resolutions fail, and most people lose their resolve by mid-February — it’s clear that our approach isn’t working.
Whether we’re overly ambitious and choose unrealistic, grand goals, or we don’t have the support in place that’s necessary to change our behaviors, we set ourselves up to fall short. Clearly, what we need isn’t to ditch our goals altogether, but to find a new approach — so that our well-intended resolutions actually stick. At Thrive we believe in starting small with Microsteps, which are science-backed, too-small-to-fail actions you can implement into your life right away to make a sustainable change. Whether you’re looking to lace up your sneakers more, revamp your diet, find more time for self-care, or beef up your bank account, these research-backed tips can help make new habits stick.
Know your “why”
For a resolution to stick, it has to matter to you. When your resolutions connect to a deeper purpose, the obstacles that stand in your way — lack of time, inconvenience, distraction — will be less likely to knock you off course. The clearer we are about why we’re committing to our resolutions, the higher the chances we will succeed, Theo Tsaouside, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist and author, tells Thrive. So if you want to read more books this year, for instance, think about the reason this is important to you. For instance, “I want to become a more avid reader to relieve stress and engage my imagination.” Revisit your “why” whenever you’re tempted to abandon your goal.
It’s easy to say you’ll start meditating, sleeping more, or spending time on self-care, but when you really think about it, there’s nothing very specific about those goals. Will you meditate in the morning or at night — and will you follow a guided audio meditation, or do a different practice? As for sleep, what time would you like to get to bed in order to get more shut-eye? According to Peter Gollwitzer, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at New York University, the key to transforming a goal into action is considering the where, when, and how.
And if your resolution is more about kicking a bad habit to the curb, Gollwitzer says an “if-then” planning method can be especially helpful. This technique will push you to consider situational cues (or situations that could trigger your habit) and intended responses (how you’ll plan to counteract that trigger). For example, if your new year’s resolution is to drink less alcohol, Gollwitzer recommends thinking like this: If I am asked what I want to drink, then I will request a mineral water. Having a solid plan is key.
Clue people in — so they keep you accountable
Research has shown that sharing your goals and progress with others can help motivate you to stick to your resolutions. When no one is checking in with you about your goals, or looking forward to your progress updates, it’s easy to put something off (or never get to it at all). Leaning on a support system will “keep you honest and on target,” Thomas Plante, Ph.D., a professor at Santa Clara University, tells Thrive. Even better: Consider finding a partner who shares the same goal, so you can support each other. “It might be easier to maintain a new exercise program with others, rather than going solo, since you will be accountable to people other than yourself,” Plante explains. “For example, when someone picks you up in the morning to go running, biking, or walking, you can’t say no or roll over and go back to sleep.” And simply put, striving toward a goal with someone you enjoy being around only make the process more fun.
Root resolutions in your identity
Instead of resolving to do certain things, make a commitment to be who you want to be. Ultimately, resolutions that are rooted in identify can be much bigger motivators. James Clear, author of the book, Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results, makes the case in a blog post that “to change your behavior for good, you need to start believing new things about yourself. You need to build identity-based habits.” You can put this idea into practice with a simple reframing technique: Instead of saying, “My goal is to never be late for appointments this year,” you could say, “I am someone who always arrives on time.” Instead of saying, “I will go for a run before work every day,” say, “I am a person who moves her body on a daily basis by going for a run.” Slight tweaks, but the results can be powerful.
Change your environment
Who (and what) you surround yourself with can have a major impact on whether or not you’re able to bring your resolution to life. To set yourself up for success, take some time to analyze your surroundings. Are your kitchen cupboards full of snacks that don’t support your goal of eating healthier? Will all of the screens in your bedroom help you get those eight hours of sleep you’re aiming for in the new year? Maybe your sneakers are buried under your bed even though you promised yourself you’d hit the treadmill three times a week. An honest assessment of your surroundings will give you some hints about what needs to be changed in order to reinforce your habit. “Alter your environment to support your efforts,” Plante says.
But if you can’t completely eliminate “problem items” or triggers from your environment, make it harder for these obstacles to sabotage your success. “Put some friction on the unwanted behavior,” says Wendy Wood, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California and author of Good Habits, Bad Habits, tells Thrive. And distance is a great source of friction. For instance, if your aim is to stop using your phone before bedtime, put it on your coffee table rather than your nightstand (and buy an actual alarm clock to wake you up), so that it’s not at an arm’s reach. If you’re trying to break a habit of stress eating while working, keep your snacks in the kitchen rather than keeping them right next to your computer. Out of sight, out of mind.
Make your plan realistic
Perhaps the biggest resolution pitfall comes in the form of making our goals too big. And the secret to new year’s success — and all-year success, really — is doing the opposite: Incorporating too-small-to-fail changes, or Microsteps, into our daily lives that make change manageable (and still measurable). Start with smaller, simpler goals, and move up to bigger ones. B.J. Fogg, a behavior change researcher and the director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University, says creating a new habit is all about the “minimum viable effort” — going as small as you can. “The more you succeed, the more capable you get at succeeding in the future,” Fogg says. “So you don’t start with the hardest behaviors first, you start with the ones you want to do and you can do and you persist.”
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