You’re a few weeks into your resolve to make changes and be your best self in this new year, and you may already be wondering if you can stick it out. You are not alone!
Most resolutions fail in less than three months and they are hard to stick to for many reasons. Maybe you underestimated how hard it was going to be; you lost focus; you lacked accountability; your goals weren’t specific or measurable… or maybe you didn’t really want it or your resolution wasn’t important enough to you.
But just because that goal you set on January 1st is usually long forgotten by mid-March doesn’t mean setting resolutions is a waste of time. The act of considering what you want to change in your life is the first step to self-improvement. Now you just have to get serious about choosing a resolution that will be honestly in sync with the enhancements you’d like to see in yourself this new year.
Fortunately, psychology can help! Here are six proven ways to help you stay focused on achieving your resolutions this year.
Make a plan.
Sometimes the intentions we set for the new year are broad… and nebulous. So temper your big goals with details on how you are going to actually achieve them. Not only does detailed planning help you anticipate obstacles, but it will schedule the ‘when’ and ‘where’ that hold you to task on making those meaningful changes.
If you’ve resolved to get in shape, perhaps you pledge to walk 50,000 steps every day, and with planning, you can break that into 20,000 each morning, 20,000 each lunch break, and 10,000 after dinner. Or if you want to finally tackle the clutter in your home this year, you might commit to deep cleaning one room each month, and go ahead and make a standing appointment with your preferred charity to pick up donations.
Planning with cues doesn’t just make your evolution more manageable — and measurable — the specificity gives you check-ins to track your progress and incremental wins to celebrate.
Everyone could use a little prompting and encouragement throughout the day! And if you’ve set a detailed plan, reminders like task lists, special calendars, and social apps can nudge you both to take those bite-sized actions toward your goal and make you feel good about not ignoring gradual progress.
Whether setting reminders means adding cues to your calendar, writing a motivational note on your mirror that you’ll see while brushing your teeth in the morning and before bed, or even wearing a piece of jewelry or a smartwatch that encourages you to take an action or think certain thoughts, these prods are a smart way to stimulate changing behaviors and create new habits.
Add in a penalty clause.
Both rewards and consequences have been proven to change behavior, but as much as we prefer carrots to sticks, penalties are unfortunately often more effective than rewards. This doesn’t mean that you should berate yourself or implement a harsh punishment if you veer a little off course, but a little reproachment may be a way to motivate you to succeed.
Some ways to reprimand yourself for a breach of resolution include fines, loss of indulgences, or even bets with friends. Little self-imposed penalties like these are more about the guilt you feel if you don’t perform — we know that telling people about your goal increases accountability, for example — but they also help you to stick to your resolution because you’ll anticipate a negative outcome if you’re unable to resist temptation.
Your “penalties” can be creative and personal. Perhaps every time you skip going to the gym you force yourself to spend time with your in-laws; or if you overspend your budget, you commit to giving a donation to a cause you don’t really like.
Give yourself emergency cheats.
Perfection is a myth and an all-or-nothing approach to goals isn’t very forgiving. So maybe don’t impose penalties on yourself for every little transgression, but add in some structured flexibility to keep you motivated and ease the pressure.
Rigidity isn’t a great way to inspire change. Instead of slogging through your resolutions, you’ll get better results by allowing yourself some wiggle room. And you might even learn something from a mistake or resolution “break” that pushes you to a fresh start!
Perhaps you indulge in a favorite dessert once a month so you know you have the treat to look forward to, or you factor in a “skip” day when you can sleep in and don’t take those 20,000 morning steps. Giving yourself emergency cheats keeps the long-term goal in sight while making it more manageable and allowing you to get back on track after a misstep or a needed break.
Just because penalties have proven more effective than incentives at changing behavior doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t also use rewards to achieve your goals. You have to incorporate some fun into your life changes and adaptations to help you actually want to do them.
If you get pleasure from an action or experience, you’ll do it longer, so combine an element of enjoyment or a guilty pleasure/temptation into your resolution plan to encourage you to keep at it. Some experts call this “pairing.”
You can pair a pleasant action with a not-so-pleasant one to diminish your distaste. Listen to your favorite podcast while cleaning out the basement, enjoy a bite of chocolate every time you resist a cigarette, or watch your rewards pile up as you use games and apps like Fetch Rewards to save money and achieve your financial goals.
Watch the company you keep.
Support is key to making changes, so we often use accountability to encourage behavioral change, but simply surrounding yourself with those who you admire — or who you feel possess positive traits that you’d like to see in yourself — works, too. So pay attention to those with whom you spend your time this year. Choose friends who boost your performance with healthy routines, positive personality traits, and personal success.