Psychology Tips for New Year’s Resolutions
It’s a classic scenario: our New Year’s resolutions often fade, and fast.
People love to set goals, and setting objectives can lead to meaningful change, whether it’s quitting smoking, cutting back on alcohol, or getting fit or more organized. But sticking to goals is often much harder than jotting them down. One study found that about 64% (nearly two-thirds) of people abandon their New Year’s resolutions within a month. It’s practically part of the tradition.
So what will help make this year different?
You crack open a new planner or calendar and imagine what could be.
“The New Year serves as a cyclical marker of time during which we reevaluate and take inventory on our lives,” says clinical psychologist Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, clinical psychologist and professor at New York’s Yeshiva University. “The drive for making resolutions is motivated by this punctuation in time. [It] activates hope and expectations for what we hope to achieve going forward.”
With a new year comes a “sense of renewal,” says psychologist Mariana Strongin, PsyD. That makes us think about what we want to improve or change.
But while that blank slate feeling can be inspiring, we can also get carried away.
Imagining change can be exciting. But it’s going to need some structure to last.
“Often people do not map out or think about what it will take to accomplish a goal or make a resolution and instead rely on the excitement of the new year as the thing that will push them to accomplish their goal,” says Amanda E. White. She’s a therapist, speaker, and the author of Not Drinking Tonight.
Then it wears off.
Or perhaps your goal was too rigid, or you didn’t allow enough time to reach it.
If you set a super-specific goal, such as a a precise body weight, “it can be challenging to persevere in your efforts toward it if results are not immediate,” Romanoff says. ” Goals take time, and many folks become discouraged and eventually relent before attaining the goal.”
If you find yourself making the same resolution each time January rolls around, do some detective work.
“We often set lofty goals for the future without honestly assessing why we’ve struggled in the past,” Britt Frank, a trauma specialist and author of The Science of Stuck. “Without examining where we are resistant to change … the cycle of resolve, relapse, repeat continues year after year.”
Change is possible. Check on what’s holding you back. “Breaking behavioral cycles requires a rigorous commitment to honesty at all costs,” Frank says.
“Divide your goals between those that can be accomplished either in the long or short term,” Romanoff says. Short-term goals are quick wins. Long-term goals are going to take more time.
Romanoff’s advice: If you have a long-term goal, create an action plan which links it to near-term achievable and realistic goals.
You’ve probably heard that you should break big goals into smaller ones.
“As humans we are driven by the feeling of mastery,” Strongin says. “So rather than making a goal of ‘becoming fit,’ I would make the goal of ‘working out three times a week for at least 45 minutes each time.’ By breaking down the goal into quantifiable measures, we are more likely to feel good about ourselves and even more likely to continue.”
White agrees. “We only achieve goals by taking small steps daily or weekly. If we want to eat healthier, we must change our eating choices daily. If we want to run a marathon, we must commit to running a certain number of miles every week.
In general, breaking a goal into the smallest step possible makes it more likely that you will follow through. We tend to get overwhelmed and give up when a goal is too lofty.
Research shows that you’re more likely to accomplish a goal that is specific and based on doing something instead of avoiding something.
For example, if you want to complain less in the new year, you are more likely to accomplish it if you phrase it as, “I will create a gratitude list and write down three things I am grateful for every day.” This resolution is about an action you’ll take, not something you want to stop doing.
Are your resolutions in conflict? That will make one or the other tougher, or impossible, to keep.
For instance, if you set a goal to save money and another to travel more, those goals could collide.
“Make sure you are not twisting yourself in a pretzel and that your goals have a synergistic effect so that working on one does not lead to the detriment of another,” Romanoff says.
Success can feel great. But it may come with some other emotions, too.
“It is crucial to understand that achieving ‘big goals’ is going to involve a degree of grief and loss,” Frank says. “Why? When we get healthier, happier and more successful, our relationships change, pressure increases, and the familiarity and comfort … is challenged.”
It’s often an adjustment. “If we focus only on the benefits and deny the costs of behavioral change, we are unlikely to stick to our resolutions,” Frank says.
Do you have a backup plan?
What will you do when the weather is too bad for the walk or run you resolved to do? How about when you’re feeling low and are tempted to spend, eat, or drink more than you planned? Or if your new routine starts to feel boring?
“Make sure you consider the things that could get in the way of accomplishing your goal and then build in ways to overcome those obstacles in your goal,” Romanoff says.
You may have heard of “‘SMART’ goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timebound.
They’re key to lasting behavior change, says Matt Glowiak, PhD, licensed clinical professional counselor and author of A Year of Finding Your Callings: Daily Practices to Uncover Your Passion and Purpose..
For instance, if your resolution is to quit smoking, Glowiak says a SMART goal could look like this:
- Specific: You identify one specific goal. In this case, it’s “I want to quit smoking.”
- Measurable: You put a number on your goal. Is it to have smoked 0 times this week, or a specific number of cigarettes less than the day or week before? You need a measurable way to track your progress.
- Attainable: Do a reality check. For instance, is quitting smoking cold turkey practical for you or would you do better gradually cutting down until you’ve quit?
- Time bound: Decide when you aim to reach each milestone and your final goal. You may also want to celebrate each step along the way, which can help you stay motivated.
With health goals such as quitting smoking, changing your diet, or improving your fitness, your doctor can help you know what’s realistic and what will help. You don’t have to figure it all out on your own.
Your values are like a compass. They constantly inform and guide behavior, Romanoff says. And they can help you remember why you set your resolution in the first place.
For instance, Romanoff recommends avoiding a goal like reaching a certain weight. Instead, consider the value behind it, such as if better health is the value driving you.
“Channel those values as incentive for your goal,” Romanoff says. “The ‘why’ behind your goal will ground it in purpose and contextualize the resolution in a meaningful way.”