Updated: Dec 31, 2021
Over half of all New Year’s resolutions fail.
New Year’s resolutions are great in theory. After all, what better time is there to hit the reset button and start afresh? But in practice, resolutions tend to lead to frustration and guilt as, year after year, they mostly go without getting fulfilled.
If this has happened to you, don’t feel bad: know that you’re in good company!
But why are resolutions so slippery?
There are several reasons.
First, we tend to set overly ambitious goals that are not realistic or that don’t jive with our current situation. Being too optimistic in this regard can make us feel overwhelmed and quickly run out of steam when we realise just how far we’ve got to go.
Another common reason is a misconception about how long it takes to make something a habit. We often expect to quickly put our new behaviours on auto-pilot. The number of days often quoted is 21 days. But in reality, some things can take close to a year before they bake themselves in as a ‘habit’. The development of habits is rarely predictable, as you often won’t find out about the obstacles in your way until you get to them.
On a related note, it’s important not to underestimate the power of inertia. On one hand, you have your old habits that are part of your daily life and that are easy to follow. It’s always simpler to just do what you usually do. That is, fall back into old habits. When you change the script, it takes effort and energy to do so. Old habits push back against new ideas and practices. While inertia can help you keep going when you are making new habits, you may need to force momentum, at least for a while, until your habit becomes resilient to inevitable setbacks like stress, sickness, or even holidays!
This is especially important when thinking of goals that require daily changes. Losing weight, for example, isn’t as easy as changing your diet and exercising more. Your diet and exercise are affected by your shopping routines, familiarity with products and budgets, access to recreation, alternative (non-food-related) coping mechanisms, and many, many other factors.
All that being said, New Year’s resolutions can still be a fantastic way to trigger some important changes you have been putting off. If you properly prepare yourself for the planning and work sticking to your resolution will require, you are much more likely to stick with it than to dump it on January 17th (annual Ditch New Year’s Resolution Day).
Here are 10 strategies for sticking with your New Year’s goals.
1) Start small
If this seems obvious, ask yourself honestly, do you always do this?
Big changes are often exciting, but when the excitement wanes, we’re often just left feeling overwhelmed. If you focus too much on the end result, like losing a certain amount of weight, it can seem like an enormous burden. Focusing too much on the picture often only highlights how far you’ve got to go. Instead, trust that you’ve picked the right direction and can figure out the details as you progress. For now, focus on the first small step, the first change you want to make. From here, it will be easier to see what the next best small step is, and so on.
Don’t be afraid to start ridiculously small. If you can’t bring yourself to put your running shoes on, focus first on putting on one shoe.
2) Set SMART goals
You already have things you want to achieve. If you didn’t you wouldn’t be reading this. Setting SMART goals isn’t as much about setting you up for success as it is about not setting yourself up to fail. If your goals do not have the SMART characteristics, you are making it extremely easy for yourself to give up on what really matters.
Your goals should be:
S - Specific
Wanting to be healthier is great, but it’s a bad goal. What do you mean by being healthier? Do you want lower blood pressure? Better aerobic fitness? To feel like you did when you were younger or taking better care of yourself? If the latter, what do you need to do to feel like that again? Be as specific as possible. Set a clear goal - lose 10 pounds (7 kgs) of body fat while maintaining muscle mass, run at least 5 meters every day (this isn’t a joke – don’t forget to keep ridiculously small goals) before dinner, eat at least 20 grams of vegetables with lunch and dinner eaten or prepared at home, use deep breathing and positive affirmations while wearing my swimsuit with the aim of reducing my anxiety about it, etc. The more specific you are, the better. With a specific goal, you can clearly picture or describe what the outcome looks like, removing ambiguity and giving you something concrete to focus on.
M - Measurable
If a goal is measurable, you can track your progress towards it. You know exactly when you’ve met it, and when you haven’t. You might measure it in lost weight or the distance you have run, the number of days in a week you’ve stuck to your meal plan or the calories you’ve consumed. Either way, you need a way to determine you’ve met or are meeting the goal.
A - Achievable
Achievable means that your goal should be realistic. We often overestimate what we can achieve in a year and underestimate what we can achieve in 10 years (referred to as the planning fallacy). We tend to assume things will go roughly to plan and rarely factor in or plan for setbacks. As a consequence, you could innocently be setting yourself a goal that sounds reasonable but is nearly impossible n practice, or that requires such massive shifts you can’t see all the knock-on effects clearly.
Instead of focusing on concrete outcomes (e.g., I will weigh X by Y date), setting goals around the process that will get you there (e.g., I will go to the gym after work on Tuesdays and Thursdays and not miss two days in a row) can often leave more room for unexpected setbacks.
R - Relevant
Relevance refers to setting goals that are meaningful for you. Goals you set to meet others’ expectations or their perceived standards rarely stick. It can help to ask yourself how this goal enables you to live in greater accordance with your values. What do you really care about? I bet it’s not the number on a scale. How does your goal help you become a better version of yourself?
T - Time-bound
For a goal to be time-bound, it means that you will know when you’ve met it (or are meeting it), and when you haven’t (or aren’t). Saying “I’m going to run 3 times a week” may be specific and measurable, but it says nothing about when you’re going to start, or for how many weeks.
Putting time boundaries on a goal can be scary. It means not doing what you want will mean you fail. But what’s the alternative? Not setting a concrete goal so you can wiggle out of it without having to make excuses to yourself?
Failure is not the enemy here. It’s not trying that will get you.
3) Set implementation intentions
Implementation intentions are a way to pre-empt situations and set up your own auto-pilot to make healthier decisions. It is as simple as deciding: When X happens, then I will do Y. Consider what you can do to increase the likelihood of your goals and plan for them to happen on specific dates, after a particular event or situation. Decide how you will act if faced with common obstacles. For instance, if you are going on a diet, how will you respond to your temptation foods? Take a moment now to write down 5 common traps you fall into with your weight and decide what you will do next time you are in those same situations.
4) Use visualization to overcome obstacles
There are two approaches to visualization that can be helpful for making big changes. The first involves imagining in detail how you will do things and picturing yourself carrying them out. For example, close your eyes and imagine yourself pulling into the supermarket car park, going straight to the vegetables, and filling your cart with your fresh veggies for one of your favourite dishes. Visualizing the actions you want to take in this way makes you more likely to actually follow through with them when the time comes and helps you prepare mentally for the new tasks. Imagine yourself using your app, putting on your running shoes, looking out for doggos on your run, prepping meals, and so on before you do the tasks.
The second type of visualization is sometimes called mental time travel. This involves taking the time to imagine your future self in five years’ time. One version of yourself where you keep your resolution, and another version of yourself if you do not. What is your life like in both circumstances? What will you do for fun? What clothes will you wear? Are you better able to live the type of life you want? How, exactly, will your life be different? Reflecting on these factors has been found to boost motivation and lead to more long-term decisions that might require some sacrifice in the short term.
5) Measure your progress every day
Measuring your progress is an important way of reaching your goal. It helps you understand how you are doing and where you are standing. It ties to the measurable part of your SMART goal and is essential to see if you are doing something that’s working or if you need to change tack.
For instance, there is strong evidence that most people benefit from measuring their weight on a daily basis. This helps you become aware of your progress and also helps you get used to the normal fluctuations and pay attention to the more meaningful changes. Once you adjust to the discomfort of looking at a number you might not like, weighing yourself every day can be a positive way of connecting with your goal.
There is an exception here. People who find daily weighing distressing and, in particular, those who have an eating disorder might find it contributes to disordered thinking. If weighing yourself every day causes you to feel obsessive, drop it from the list. The same applies to other forms of measurement - use it only if it helps
6) Frequent reflection
Even if you choose not to measure your progress, you staying in touch with your goals is critical to staying motivated helpful. Use tools at your disposal to find something to remind you of what you are doing and why. That might be questions you prompt yourself with a recurring alarm, post-it notes on your mirror, or an app like Contemplate Weight Loss.
Your motivation will inevitably fade over time and as life happens. The important thing is to put things in place that will keep you connected to your goal and keep you from losing sight of them for too long.
At some point you will get off track, overwhelmed, and stuck. Being overwhelmed means you have exceeded your mental or emotional capacity to process the situation. One of the best ways to deal with this emotional experience is to extend your capacity to process throughs and emotions by writing them down. Once they’re on paper, it frees up your headspace to see them from more of an outside perspective without having to carry the burden of them at the same time. Journaling can provide a unique perspective when you get off track and free you to discover new ideas.
8) Make your deadline meaningful
Remember the ‘T’ In SMART Goals? Well, it’s not enough to pick a random on your calendar. For the time boundary of your goal to be effective it has to actually mean something to you. You might choose an event or milestone, such as your birthday, a get-together, or a meeting with a friend who provides accountability for your goals. If you’re really brave you can announce the deadline plus the goals publicly or reach out to someone who is important to you. This adds more accountability and ties your goals to a particular deadline. But take note, sharing your goals tend to only be effective if you’re afraid to let down the people you tell.
9) Focus on milestones on the way to your bigger goal
Substantial weight loss is overwhelming and a goal weight can take months or even years to achieve sustainably. If you want to lose weight, setting a big goal and is great, but having shorter-term milestones to focus on can save you from feeling like you’re still miles from where you want to be. Focus on a manageable chunk of time: a month, a week, or a day, and tie it to a smaller part of your goal. For instance, you might experiment with a new diet for a week to see what you want to keep from it or sign up for a 30-day gym challenge.
10) Social support
Finally, we can all use help from other people. Whether it involves joining a pre-existing community, forming your own group, looking for help from your friends, or seeking online support. Social support can help you stay on track and accountable. While it is very helpful, but it does not mean placing responsibility for your goals on other people either. There is always some risk in relying on others. Be mindful of situations when the community is not aligned with your goals or your training partner is out of the game, due to injuries or other commitments, for instance.
You can mitigate some of the risk of relying on others for social support two ways.
Focus on helping others achieve the goal that you are working towards for yourself. Supporting others to keep going often forces you to keep going too.
Consider how you can build a network of support, rather than leaning on a single person. Like the point above, that might mean surrounding yourself by those that are further ahead of you, at the same stage, or a little behind.
If you follow these 10 tips you will be doing better than 90% of people, following some of the best most evidence-based advice available, and stacking the odds for success in your favour.
While the tips help, they, like anything, are limited by how consistently you use them. So if you’ve read this far, before you go, ask yourself the following questions:
When was the last time I made a significant lifestyle change?
How did I make it stick?
How can I repeat my success now?
Contemplate is a weight loss app that uses daily reflection to help people start and sustain behaviour change. Click on the link below and sign up now free for a full 14 days and see for yourself if Contemplate is right for you.