New Year’s resolutions are infamous for being unattainable. Studies and polls show that most people give up on their New Year’s resolutions within the first month. However, the steps you take to achieve your goal are often more critical than merely deciding to change.
“The issue is not the resolutions themselves, but how we approach them,” says Katy Milkman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business who researches the fresh start effect, hosts the podcast Choiceology, and is the author of How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.
Make meaningful, value-driven resolutions
When a goal fits with your priorities, it’s much easier to keep it. For instance, spending less money is a good goal, but there are many ways to spend money (and targeted ads urging you to do so). A supervising psychologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Charissa Chamorro, suggests that you think about your top five values and how your goal of spending less fits in with these values.
“Maybe your values are to be more ecologically aware and not consume so much,” she says, and this could be the driving reason to stay on track.
Get super specific with how you’ll work towards your goals
Milkman says that the problem with resolutions is that they are too vague: I’ll be more patient, I’ll volunteer more, and I’ll save money. These goals are great, but they don’t tell you how to realize them. Plan how you’ll reach your benchmark goal after you’ve set it. Think about things like, “When will I help out?” “Where will I offer my help?” “How am I going to get there?” “How many hours will I give to volunteering each week?” Research shows that people are more likely to reach their goals when they have a plan for how to make a change.
Break your resolution down into mini-goals
Denise Rousseau, a Heinz University professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, says that most New Year’s resolutions are behavioral goals, in which a person promises to do something different in their life. Most people cannot withstand a major life change, and major milestones can feel overwhelming and stressful. Milkman says that people often give up on their goals if they are too easy or too hard, so breaking them up into smaller goals helps people stick to them.
For example, if you want to eat healthier, one of your first mini-goals might be to buy more fruits and vegetables. Second, make sure these foods don’t go bad. Next, make those fruits and vegetables three times a week and eat them. From there, you can add more. Rousseau says that the key to setting goals is to break them down into task strategies and smaller goals. “You’re less likely to blow it off because it starts to seem too big a deal, too hard to do, too hard to fit in my life.”
Make your mini-goals fun and rewarding
If you want to read more, buy yourself a latte before you start a new book. Or download your favorite podcast to listen to while you go on your self-imposed daily walk. “By combining a temptation with a chore,” says Milkman, “that chore becomes something you associate with pleasure, and you start looking forward to it instead of dreading it.”
Be prepared for when you mess up or want to quit
Instead of beating yourself up for making mistakes or giving in to temptations, remind yourself that the key to reaching your goals is persistence, not perfection. Studies show that missing a few days of a new behavior doesn’t stop it from becoming a habit. When you make a mistake, focus on your goal again. Why did you decide to do this? Where do you hope to be in a year? “When we have those kinds of interruptions, the idea is to reaffirm your commitment to the goal by reflecting on what is the outcome you want, what is the self you want to be, and where you are now,” Milkman states.
Plan “get out of jail free” days into your plan for how many days a week or month you want to spend on a new hobby, for example. If you told yourself you’d practice guitar seven days a week with three “get out of jail free” days, you’d still reach your goal if you only picked up the instrument four days a week.
Rousseau says that trying to improve yourself is always a good idea and that you shouldn’t be put off by the fact that New Year’s resolutions are a cliche. Just be clear about what you want to do, make a plan with smaller goals along the way, and don’t let setbacks stop you from moving forward.