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How to Set Resolutions You Might Actually Achieve

Be Careful About What You Promise to Do

When people think of New Year’s, the word “resolution” is rarely far behind.

Peeling the shrink-wrap off that new calendar inspires thoughts about what to improve in the coming year. What better date than January 1 to commit to losing 40 pounds, quitting smoking and hitting the gym every morning?

But how many of those resolutions will become lifelong habits, or even last into February?

The good news: By approaching resolutions differently, you can increase those odds dramatically, and feel better about yourself while doing it. Here are some ways to meet your goals without beating yourself up.

Pick One Smart Goal, Then Build On It

“Most resolutions fail because the goals are too vague and have no way to be measured,” said Chris Cooper, co-owner of Active Movement and Performance, a physical training facility in Massapequa Park, N.Y. “Things such as ‘going to the gym more’ or ‘starting a diet' have no structure to them."

“A better plan would have specific and measurable qualities, focused solely on changing one behavior pattern," he says. "Picking a goal such as going to the gym and working out 16 times in January gives you one measurable and specific thing to work on.”

Gym attendance is also something you can control directly, Cooper said, unlike a goal based on the outcome (“I will lose 20 pounds in six weeks”).

“Use a 1-to-10 scale to measure how likely it is you can accomplish your resolution. You want it around the middle: Not an eight because that’s too hard; not a one or two, since that’s not even a challenge.”

Starting at the middle of your personal scale means you can adjust your goal if it proves too hard or easy. Once that behavior has become routine — after about three months, Cooper suggested — add another tangible, action-based resolution, such as making sure that there’s one protein on your plate each time you sit down for a meal.

Manage Your Schedule, and Your Support Team

Kyra Bobinet is a San Francisco Bay Area physician who has worked with Stanford University’s behavior-design lab. She’s the founder of EngagedIN, a practice focused on helping people make changes in their lives.

According to Bobinet, New Year’s is a useful milestone for change. “Ultimately, everything has to come from within yourself,” she said. “But until it does, New Year’s Eve, a wedding or a reunion is a good anchor.”

To succeed, make changes palatable and manageable. “Your life is already full,” she said. “It’s about poking a hole in your schedule, then expanding and stretching that hole.”

And be prepared to iterate on those changes; don’t expect to get it exactly right the first time. “One of the problems with setting goals is it’s a win-loss game,” Bobinet said. “There’s a lot of self-judgment. ...Take the position, ‘I’m going to design this; if it doesn’t work, I’m going to redesign it.'"

Finally, everybody needs support from others, but that means different things to different people. “Some people need a team, others need a partner, still others need a trainer, but we all need someone who we trust to hold us accountable. Many people aren’t patient about finding a person who has the right style.”

Don’t Pursue Others’ Goals, and Do Reward Yourself

“Many, perhaps most, people who are jumping into the new year with a resolution are setting a goal that is someone else’s,” said Wendy LeBolt, the author of Fit2Finish: Keeping Your Soccer Players in the Game and an exercise physiologist working with injury prevention in youth sports in the Washington, D.C., area.

“I need to lose weight because my husband thinks I'm fat,” “I need to exercise because my company gave me a membership,” or “I need to quit smoking because my family keeps harping on me to quit” are all goals that are likely to fail.

Instead, LeBolt said, consider the importance of the goal in your own life. “You can have the same New Year’s resolution, but if the voice behind it isn’t yours, it’s never going to be motivating.”

And when you do find that motivation and make progress, reward yourself. “Success is a really big deal,” she said. Think of a reward that won’t undo your good work (a binge meal isn’t a great way to celebrate weight loss), but be sure to take the time for it.

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