Smart ways to keep your New Year's resolutions

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published January 11, 2018

Key Takeaways

Americans are great at making New Year’s resolutions, but we’re not so great at keeping them. The top three New Year’s resolutions for 2018 are familiar ones—eat healthier, get more exercise, save more money—but they’re not easy ones. While most of us resolve to make such changes, few of us make them for good.

We start out strong—77% of people who made resolutions kept them for 1 week, according to a survey by researchers at the University of Scranton.

But our resolve gradually weakens—by 1 month, 55% stuck to their resolutions. That number fell to 43% by 3 months, then to 40% at 6 months. At the 2-year follow-up, only 19% of resolvers were still successful.

When we fail, we beat ourselves up and think we’re our own worst enemy. But it’s not just a matter of individual willpower; there are a number of reasons why we don’t achieve our resolutions. So, in response, here are some tips to help you succeed.

Make it rewarding
No pain, no gain? No way, say motivational psychologists in a 2016 study of New Year’s resolutions. A resolution doesn’t have to pain you to be worthwhile. In fact, these researchers found that people who made their New Year’s resolution more enjoyable (an immediate reward) were better at keeping it than those who didn’t (a delayed reward).

Because we often think of a resolution as a long-term goal, we don’t expect to be rewarded until we achieve it (losing 20 lbs. to fit into an old pair of jeans, for example). But these researchers determined that delayed rewards don’t give as much satisfaction as immediate rewards (listening to music while working out, for example). And without reward, the resolution is less likely to stick.

“To motivate adherence to long-term goals, people can therefore engage in activities that offer both immediate and delayed rewards during pursuit,” the authors advised.

Get help
The University of Scranton researchers made a serendipitous finding in their 2002 study of New Year’s resolutions: More than half of people who hadn’t made solid resolutions went from “thinking about” them to “doing something about” them, simply because the researchers had called them during follow-up.

“Fully 54% of our initial pool of nonresolvers moved from the contemplation stage to the action stage within 4 weeks and with three brief telephone contacts,” the investigators wrote. This “salubrious effect” alerted the researchers to “the potential of brief psychosocial interventions in changing health behaviors.”

In other words, don’t just think about your goals—talk about them. Make your resolutions “real” by enlisting the help of others.

Don’t set yourself up for failure
We may gain a little extra weight over the holidays, which increases our already-expanding waistline, so we steadfastly resolve to drop 75 lbs. That’s almost literally biting off more than you can chew. In other words, avoid setting a goal that is nearly impossible—or even very difficult—to accomplish. Goals that are more manageable are not only easier to reach, but they set us up for success.

How? Research shows that self-efficacy—the belief that you’ll be able to accomplish a specific task—is one of the main predictors of successfully achieving resolutions. So, if you believe you can do it, you’re more likely to do it.

“Setting small, attainable goals throughout the year, instead of a singular, overwhelming goal on January 1, can help you reach whatever it is you strive for,” said psychologist Lynn Bufka, PhD, associate executive director of Practice Research and Policy, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC. “Remember, it is not the extent of the change that matters, but rather the act of recognizing that lifestyle change is important and working toward it, one step at a time.”

Do set yourself up for failure
This tip may seem to contradict the one above but, in practice, it doesn’t. Be prepared to fail—be prepared to slip up, to lapse. More than half of people who successfully achieved their resolution reported slipping up, researchers found. And these lapses occurred not just once or twice, but an average of once a month (14 lapses in 2 years for successful resolvers).

That’s not a bad thing, researchers noted: “Significantly, 71% of the resolvers stated that their slip actually strengthened their resolution.”

So, when you feel your resolve weakening, remember these points. And if you don’t keep your resolution…well, there’s always next year.

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