There are many reasons why it’s hard to keep a New Year’s resolution, and why over 50 percent of them fail. Many of us make goals that are too vague, too difficult, or not true to ourselves. You resolve to cook more at home, but you don’t plan how many nights a week you’ll do it or when you’ll go grocery shopping. You resolve to exercise every day, but after the first few weeks, you realize that it isn’t realistic, so you give up altogether. Or your resolution is a response to societal pressure or self-loathing. If your heart isn’t in it, you won’t achieve it.
Experts on building good habits suggest using a system called SMART, which stands for:
Your resolution should be specific and measurable. For example, if you want to lose weight, just saying “I want to lose weight” is too vague, and it’s impossible to measure. Instead, resolve to lose a specific amount of weight and to weigh yourself on a regular schedule.
Your goal should be achievable. If you want to read more books but you haven’t read a book in a year, aiming to read one book a week is setting yourself up to fail. Instead, make reading for 20 minutes a day your goal and find the right place to incorporate it into your daily routine (see below, “Making and Breaking Habits”).
Your resolution should be relevant to you and your long-term goals. If you’re at a healthy weight, but you still think you need to lose 10 pounds because that’s how much you weighed before you had a baby/got married/got divorced/etc., you may be responding to external motivators rather than an internal one. For a resolution to succeed, it has to be relevant to your true self. Find a resolution that’s truer to your life goals. Instead of trying to hit a certain number on a scale, resolve to exercise—not to lose weight, but to feel healthier.
Finally, your resolution should be time-bound. For example, if you want to switch jobs because you’re unhappy in your current one, just writing “find a new job” on your to-do list won’t get you very far. You’ve got to break it down into steps, and for each step give yourself a complete-by date. For example:
1. Update my resume by Feb. 1
2. Post my resume on relevant job websites by March 1
3. Send emails to people I know who might have job leads by April 1
4. Contact potential employers directly by May 1
5. Follow up with people by June 1
Making and Breaking Habits
According to Charles Duhigg in his book “The Power of Habit,” good and bad habits are part of a cycle that includes a cue, a routine, and a reward. To quit a bad habit, you first have to identify your cue. Let’s say you want to eat less sugar. You have to figure out what triggers your sugar consumption, what your sugar eating routine is, and what reward you get from eating it. For one week, keep a journal of every time you eat sugary food, but don’t try to eat less sugar just yet. Write down:
1. The time (e.g., “3:00 p.m.”)
2. Your location (“At work at my desk”)
3. Who is with you (“I was alone”)
4. What you did moments before your craving (“I was working”)
5. How you’re feeling (“I felt tired”)
For week two, every time you crave sugar test out a different response to the craving. For example, instead of eating cookies at 3:00 p.m., eat a handful of nuts. If that doesn’t satisfy your need, the cookies probably aren’t a response to hunger. Instead, try drinking a cup of coffee with a small amount of sugar substitute or, better yet, green tea without sweetener. If that works, it’s likely you needed the energy cookies provided, not the sugar. Keep trying new rewards until you find one that works and make it part of your new sugar-free routine.
The same idea goes for when you’re trying to start a new, healthy habit. For example, if you want to floss your teeth every day, start by finding a cue. Every night, brushing your teeth is an excellent cue to floss. Second, determine a reward. Right before you brush your teeth and floss at night, turn on music or a favorite podcast. Pretty soon, you’ll start to associate flossing with something enjoyable.
Just Keep Going
What’s most important when trying to keep a New Year’s resolution is that you’re gentle with yourself. Psychologist Pauline Wallin, author of “Taming Your Inner Brat”, told the New York Times, “There will be times when you will say, ‘I’ll make a mess of things and I’m just going to start again tomorrow.’” She says not to berate yourself and to instead “Focus on what you’re doing good for yourself rather than what mistake you made.”
If keeping resolutions were easy, more than 50 percent of us would do it! Every week you keep yours is one you should celebrate. Be proud of yourself when you keep your resolution, but don’t beat yourself up if you slip. It’s better to slip up for a week or a month than to give up altogether.