It’s that time of year again: when you hear countless stats on how bad Americans are at keeping New Year’s resolutions. But, if you’ve ever made a resolution, you probably don’t need any reminder there. FYI, 36 percent of resolution-makers give up by the end of January, according to research published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology. (Sorry, we couldn’t help it.)
However, it turns out that it’s not us that’s the problem. It’s our resolutions, according to study author John Norcross, a professor of psychology at the University of Scranton and author of “Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions.” Here, we explore how to set the right resolution – and finally achieve it – in the coming year.
“Our actions are controllable, whereas resolutions are often too big and vague to be readily controlled or measured,” says psychotherapist Coral Arvon, director of behavioral health and wellness at Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa in Miami. For example, when you set a resolution to lose weight – even though you can weigh yourself and take measurements throughout the process – what you are tracking isn’t the true achievement, but rather a result of those achievements. Ditching soda, exercising four days per week, getting more sleep and managing stress levels are the true achievements and, since they are under your complete control and are easily tracked, make great resolutions. Each time you perform one, you can “check it off,” and receive the immediate gratification you need to stick with that goal, Norcross explains. The weight loss still comes, but as a natural result of your actions.
“Many resolutions fail because our brains can’t handle making large-scale changes at one time,” Arvon says. After all, we can’t expect ourselves to be totally different people just because it’s a new year. So expecting yourself to completely overhaul your eating plan or quit smoking cold turkey on Jan. 1 is really just setting yourself up for failure, explains NYC-based therapist Paul Hokemeyer. He recommends his clients identify one single resolution, master it and, only then, add in another habit change. For instance, if you want to eat healthier in the new year, your resolution could simply be eating breakfast every day. Once you’ve got that down, you can start trying to limit yourself to one soda per day. Bonus: Actions like eating breakfast are what Arvon calls “keystone habits,” meaning that implementing them has a ripple effect, thereby leading to more healthy habits. After all, if you are well-fueled in the morning with a healthy breakfast, you are less likely to need a soda pick-me-up in the afternoon.
According to one review published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, the No. 1 predictor of a person’s level of physical activity is confidence in his or her exercise ability. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that applies to every resolution you can make, Norcross adds, explaining that to make lasting changes, people need to choose goals they feel are attainable. Once they succeed, they get an additional confidence boost that allows them to reach new, higher goals.
When both choosing and working toward a resolution, it’s important to consider why you want to make that change and why achieving your goals is worth any frustration or difficulty. “Change is hard,” Hokemeyer says. “That’s why propelling away from discomfort is easier than moving toward a fantasy goal.” For instance, most people will find a diagnosis of heart disease as a more motivating reason to exercise than the desire to participate in an Ironman triathlon. So think long and hard about why you really, deep down, want to make a change in the new year. Once you’ve identified it, put a reminder on your phone, refrigerator or anywhere else that will help you keep your true motivation at the forefront of your mind.
You’ve probably heard that it takes about 21 days to form a habit. Unfortunately, the true number is much higher, with the 21-day figure coming from a plastic surgeon who, in the 1960s, noticed that his patients adjusted to their new looks in 21 days. How long does it really take to cement a healthy lifestyle? According to a study from the University College London in which researchers examined the habits of 96 people, it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days, with 66 being the average, for a new habit to stick. So give yourself a couple of months to work on mastering one healthy habit before adding another to your to-do list, and don’t be discouraged if you need even more time, Arvon says. Slow results are often the most sustainable over the long term.