4 Tips for Making Resolutions Stick in the New Year

by Tara Struyk on 27 December 2012 0 comments
Photo: Alan Cleaver

New Year’s resolutions have become a bit of a cliché, especially when you consider the statistics — according to a 2002 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, only 19% of people who make resolutions are still sticking to them after two years. So what’s the point?

As much as I cling to the cynical view, I’m all for resolutions for one simple reason — results. Resolutions really work, and I’m not just speaking anecdotally. Among the people who make resolutions in a typical year, 46% keep them for at least six months, compared to only 4% of a comparable group of people who wanted to make changes and thought about doing so, but stopped short of actually making that commitment. In other words, the power of a New Year’s resolution may not be so much in how you make it or what you resolve to do, but whether you actually make a resolution at all.

Pretty cool, huh? There is one snag, though — most of us don’t know what a resolution really is. (See also: Why Your Big New Year's Resolutions Are Pointless)

Remember: Resolutions Aren’t Goals

Setting a concrete goal to work towards during the year is a valuable exercise. After all, it could be the impetus you need to push you to do something you’ve always wanted to do, like run a marathon, travel, or finally start putting some effort into retirement savings. But while many people resolve to do very specific things (losing weight, quitting smoking, and exercising more regularly top the list), those aren’t really resolutions.

They’re goals.

What’s the difference? Well, a resolution is the act of resolving or determining on a course of action, but the word also implies a sense of firmness of purpose, of being resolute. In other words, while a goal is something that you work on until it is complete, a resolution is better thought of as something that you must live, day in and day out.

With that in mind, here are some ways to make better changes in the New Year. And by that I mean changes you’ll be able to make continued progress on for years to come.

1. Stop Trying to Make the Right Resolution

When I make resolutions, I often find myself torn between resolving to do something I feel like I should do and choosing a more personal resolution that really resonates with me. Maybe you feel like you should lose weight, or your family is bugging you to quit smoking. Those are great goals to set, but if they aren’t in line with what you want, I’d be willing to bet you won’t succeed — at least not for long.

Instead of trying to make the right resolution, focus on making one that’s right for you. Try thinking about the things you did that made you feel proud and happy during the year, and the things you regret. Then come up with a resolution that’ll help you embrace more of the good and less of the bad. Now that’s progress, especially if you continue to do this year in and year out.

2. Do It Every Day

Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project,” often writes about the power of doing something every day, even if it’s only for a few moments.

“If I try to do something four days a week, I spend a lot of time arguing with myself about whether today is the day, or tomorrow, or the next day; did the week start on Sunday or Monday; etc.,” she wrote in a 2009 blog post. “The things you do every day take on a certain beauty, and provide a kind of invisible architecture to daily life.”

An invisible architecture. If you think about your life that way, the things you do every day, the things you resolve to be a priority, the things you get so used to doing that you do them without question, could be considered the very foundation and framework of your life.

When it comes to what you do every day, resolve to add things that improve that structure, such as making healthy choices, spending time with your family, or finding time for yourself. We breathe every day, we eat, we sleep. Those are essential. When it comes to the other stuff, there’s some wiggle room. Even so, what you choose to fill the rest of the time with should be what matters most to you.

3. Try, but Don't Succeed

A year is a long time, and often, situations we don’t anticipate make keeping a resolution difficult. I often find myself basking in the glow of a little time off around Christmas and resolving to be more patient or, perhaps more specifically, less totally impatient. But once I’m up against a little more stress and a little less sleep, I sometimes snap under the pressure (and ultimately snap at someone).

Change is hard, but if there’s anything harder than changing our ways it has to be our failed attempts. Fortunately, a Stanford psychologist has found some evidence that failure is actually a performance enhancer.

According to research by Carol Dweck, people who saw ability as something that could be developed were able to make huge strides in just about anything they set their minds to, while those who chose to feel helpless about their lack of ability failed to progress. The difference is largely one of perspective. Do you see your resolutions as something you need to complete and check off your list, or as a work in progress that you can continue to perfect over time? I’m going with the latter. At least that way, there’s hope for me yet.

4. Start Small, Live Large

Maybe you’ve resolved to live healthier or be happier, but whatever big ambitions you have in life, start small. (After all, if a resolution is something you live every day of your life, you have time!) Start chipping away at your resolution by choosing something you will absolutely be able to achieve. Once you have that down, add something else. This won’t deliver the dramatic, ugly-duckling-to-beautiful-swan type transformation we all sort of fantasize about. The thing is, I think we all recognize that most of those fantasies just aren’t very realistic. So take little steps toward to your big ambitions. Over time, you will achieve something tangible that you can proud of.

I’m not sure what resolutions I’ll make this year, but I’m always aiming to live a life that’s happier, healthier and more in line with what I believe is important. As a result, I look forward to making a resolution of some sort. When it comes to health and happiness, there is no destination. But when you think about it, that’s actually a good thing.

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