We are in the midst of that special time of year when we may overindulge in various tasty holiday treats and, when we feel our clothes tighten, we will resolve that we’re going to lose that extra 5 (or 50, or 100) pounds. Or perhaps we have become overwhelmed with chronically messy desks or overflowing closets, and we decide that the upcoming year will be the year to get our lives completely organized. Or maybe we decide that next year will be the year when we finally run a marathon, or meditate every day, or learn Aikido, or learn to speak French, or write a novel. Whatever the specific personal goal is, the promise of a new year sparkles in front of us every December, tempting us with infinite possibilities.
Cue the ritual of New Year’s resolutions. Every year, many of us will decide that we are going to begin our hopeful journey to the Vastly Improved New Me on January 1st.
As a school psychologist, it seems there’s always too much to do and not enough time in the day to keep up with everything. So, every year, I resolve to be better organized in the vain hope that my job will somehow become more manageable. However, like many people with lofty goals, after a few weeks of trying a different new strategy or system, I typically find myself returning to frantically scribbling to-do lists in the margins of my calendar because that’s the most familiar and easily accessible behavior.
It’s easy to fall back on typical, familiar behaviors, especially when life is hectic and stressful. The significant effort that is required to make meaningful and lasting changes is precisely why many New Year’s resolutions fizzle, with many people abandoning their resolutions over time.
So, you may be wondering if all New Year's resolutions are worthless and should be abandoned altogether. The answer is not necessarily. There are specific strategies that can help increase the success rate of resolutions, and many of those strategies are already familiar to mental health professionals, because we utilize them with goal-planning for clients.
The following are some strategies that help increase the chances of success of achieving our New Year’s resolutions (and goals in general):
- Be realistic about expectations. Do research on the topic beforehand, and consult with a relevant professional if needed, to determine achievable goals.
- Set SMART goals. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Based. Unclear, overly-broad goals (for example, “I’m going to get healthy”) are too vague to operationalize; it’s much clearer to specify an exact action-oriented goal (for example, “For the month of January, I will walk for at least 15 minutes a day for at least 4 days each week”).
- Set a series of smaller goals to be done in shorter increments of time. Sometimes, our end-goal is distant. For example, losing 100 or more pounds can initially seem too daunting to even get started. So, instead of saying “I will lose 100 pounds in 2 years,” break goals down into shorter time segments, with realistic expectations for each segment; for instance, “Starting on January 1, my goal is to lose 5 pounds by February 1.”
- Be as specific as possible. What specific actions will move toward the goal? When, how, and where is the activity going to happen?
- Have a back-up plan for when things go wrong. Weather might prevent plans to walk outside; a back-up plan to walk inside the house or office building or mall gives other options.
- Don’t give up if you don’t meet your exact goal. Maybe the goal to lose 5 pounds by February 1 wasn’t achieved, but 2 pounds were lost instead; that is still a win. Adjust future goals as needed if the original goal was too ambitious.
- Seek support, whether from a professional; or from family, friends, neighbors, or coworkers; or from a social media group. Having someone, or a group of people, to share encouragement, strategies, tips, successes, and frustrations can help keep motivation high.
- Provide regular reinforcement for sticking with goals. Reinforcement doesn’t have to be complicated, fancy, or expensive, but it should be something that is personally rewarding.
- Seek out reliable information from reputable sources. Reading or watching programs related to your specific goals can be motivating and provide innovative ideas and strategies to try.
- Pair an enjoyable activity (such as watching favorite shows on television) with a goal-related activity (such as walking on the treadmill).
- Make preferred activities contingent on completing the goal-related activity; for instance, relaxing with an enjoyable book after one specific section of the target space has been cleaned out.
- Use approach-oriented goals versus avoidance-oriented goals. Approach-oriented goals move toward something positive, while avoidance-oriented goals move away from something negative. For example, an approach-oriented goal might involve drinking more water, where an avoidance-oriented goal might involve NOT drinking soda.
- Flexibility and being kind to ourselves are crucial strategies for success. Life happens and our best laid plans invariably go by the wayside. Giving ourselves grace when we make mistakes or fall short of our goals allows us to regroup quickly rather than quitting altogether.
Of course, New Year’s resolutions aren’t for everyone and some people may find them more frustrating than beneficial. Whatever camp you’re in, an important point to remember is that we don’t have to make a big plan nor wait until a specific date rolls around to start making small positive changes to our habits that can yield larger benefits over time.
Oscarsson, M., Carlbring, P., Andersson, G., & Rozental, A. (2020). A large-scale experiment on New Year's resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PloS one, 15(12), e0234097. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0234097
Bailey R. R. (2017). Goal Setting and Action Planning for Health Behavior Change. American journal of lifestyle medicine, 13(6), 615–618. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827617729634