It’s a holiday tradition to make a list of all the goals you want to accomplish in the New Year: Lose weight. Mediate more. Eat more chia seeds. But it’s almost become a national pastime to diss our collective aspirations. Your sister snidely remarks, “You’re going to train for a half-marathon — seriously?” Or you see these reminders that 88 percent of resolutions fail.
But get ready to prove them wrong. It turns out there are skills you can learn to set yourself up for success. “It’s not just about resisting temptation through willpower alone,” says University of Scranton Psychologist John Norcross, who’s followed hundreds of resolution-makers over the past two decades. (His most famous study was published in 2002 in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.) “A lot of people don’t understand that it’s a process that occurs in baby steps. It would be like trying to develop a new skill with no effective training, like playing the violin or tennis.”
“That’s magical thinking that you’ll be reborn on January 1st and will just figure it out.”
His research found that 40 percent of people who make resolutions succeeded in achieving their goals. By contrast, only four percent of people who wanted to change a behavior — but didn’t declare their intentions in the form of a resolution — saw any results.
One important caveat: The winners didn’t try to wing it starting New Year’s Day. “That’s magical thinking that you’ll be reborn on January 1st and will just figure it out,” says Norcross, author of Changeology: 5 Steps for Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions. “You need realistic self-confidence. You also need a plan.”
Check out these expert tips on how to crush you goals.
Science-Backed Tips to Make New Year’s Resolutions Stick
1. Lay the groundwork.
You’ve identified what you want to change in your life and what you have to do to accomplish it. (You want to lose weight. You look up delicious Daily Burn recipes. You make a meal plan. You go to the grocery store.) There’s more you can do to pave the way. “Change your environment to work for you and not against you,” says Norcross. Throw out the junk food in the house. Organize your spice cabinet to make cooking easier. Also, practice your new behaviors in advance. Have you scouted out the jogging paths in your neighborhood? Or studied the online menus of your favorite restaurants so you can make healthy choices? The time is now.
2. Break your goal into small, concrete chunks.
It’s tempting to declare you’re going to lose 30 pounds or make vague intentions to “get fit.” But getting more specific is key, says Mical Kay Shilts, Ph.D., professor of nutrition and foods at California State University in Sacramento who studies how patients set diet and exercise goals. “With large long-term goals, we can get overwhelmed and easily discouraged. They need to be attainable enough so you know can achieve it if you put in the effort,” she says. Make weekly goals, such as “I’m going to walk for 30 minutes three times this week” or “I want to lose a pound this week.”
“Successful people slip up as much as unsuccessful people, but they realize it’s a slip and don’t give up.”
3. Monitor your progress.
Instead of measuring the outcome, track the healthy behaviors that help you achieve it. “If you’re working on your weight, [that means] you’re not just recording the pounds,” says Norcross. “It’s how often you exercise or eat fresh fruits and vegetables.” Logging those good-for-you deeds will also mean you’re reinforcing — and applauding — good habits. You’ll also be able to look back and see how far you’ve come. Progress, FTW.
4. Recruit a cheerleader.
You don’t have to chronicle your journey on Facebook. But it’s helpful to share your goals — and brag about your milestones — with a supportive friend. “You create a kind of accountability because you don’t want to tell them that you didn’t do it,” explains Shilts. “It’s also nice to get a pat on the back because that keeps us going.”
5. Enlist a task-master.
This is different from prompting your Instagram buds to send you feel-good “Amazing!” comments. Norcross suggests making an actual contract with someone who will commit to helping you stay on track. For example, in this sample, you agree to accomplish goals by a certain date. If you meet them, you get the listed rewards, such as a dinner out or a foot rub. If you don’t, you accept your specified punishment, such as donating to your favorite charity. Check out the app Gym-Pact, which creates “cash stakes” in a group money pool as an incentive to meet your goals.
6. Enjoy instant gratification.
The challenge of sticking to resolutions is that the payoff often seems far away. Researchers from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business found that those who can identify the immediate rewards have a better chance of keeping up the behaviors that will get them there.
“People can ask themselves what activities they can choose that will make pursuing the long-term goal more enjoyable,” suggests Kaitlin Woolley, Ph.D. candidate in behavioral science and lead author of the study that was published in November in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. She suggests listening to music while exercising or focusing on the post-workout endorphin high (rather than the bigger goal of “better health”).
7. Anticipate the rough patches.
Even if you hit the ground running on New Year’s Day, your quest will get noticeably harder by late January. “We can do anything for a while, but creating a new behavior is a lot of work,” says Norcross, explaining that successful people benefitted the most from social support a couple weeks after starting their plan.
They also recovered quickly when they strayed. “Successful people slip up as much as unsuccessful people, but they realize it’s a slip and don’t give up,” says Norcross. In fact, 71 percent of people in his research said their first slip-up forced them to re-commit to their goals.
It takes about three months on average to change a habit. “If you’re ready, the beginning of the year is a wonderful opportunity to improve yourself,” says Norcross. “Remember to keep going.”