At the start of every year, many of us find ourselves wondering how to keep the New Year’s resolutions we’ve set for ourselves. It’s a well-known joke that the gym crowds surge in January, only to thin back out by mid-February. Sometimes, it almost seems like resolutions are just meant to be broken. But trust us, resolutions are good, productive ways to set goals and intentions for the new year. Deciding to make positive changes, like ditching a bad habit and adopting a healthier one, is always a good idea—one you should see through to the end.
Often, what we don’t realize is that the problem isn’t that we aren’t capable of sticking to our resolutions—it’s that we need to do a better job making resolutions that are actionable and achievable. Otherwise, it’s almost like setting yourself up to fall short.
“Change is hard. We are creatures of habit,” June Kloubec, Ph.D., a professor in the department of nutrition and exercise science at Bastyr University, tells SELF. “Unless you are very motivated, have good social support, and have the right environment, it is difficult to make lasting behavior changes.” Experts like Kloubec, who work with people to get past barriers and make lasting changes, know that the kinds of things that can hold people back from reaching their goals may crop up before they’ve even attempted to change a thing.
If you want to set yourself up for the best chance of success, start with these smart tips for making better resolutions you can actually stick to.
1. Make smaller resolutions.
You think: “I’m going to spend less, work out more, and get promoted.” All great aspirations, but creating a resolution that’s too big sets you up for failure. The first key to success is zeroing in on one goal, not three. Then do a quick reality check. “Look at the level of commitment it will require to achieve, and consider if you’ll be able to match it,” Larry Kubiak, Ph.D., director of psychological services at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, tells SELF. Are you really going to be able to swear off chocolate completely? Unlikely. Limiting your Hershey’s Kisses eating to a few times a week would be much more achievable.
2. Get specific with your goals.
“Save money” is another good goal. But how? And how much? Without some definable parameters, your best intentions can get lost in the shuffle. “The more detailed you can be—’I’m going to save $30 a week by eating out one fewer meal’—the [easier] it is to stay focused on what you have to do to succeed,” Kubiak says. Setting small, specific goals also keeps you encouraged along the way—each time you meet one, you have reason to celebrate your progress.
3. Write down your goals.
People who write down their goals feel a greater sense of accountability and have a much higher chance of accomplishing them, Elizabeth Ward, Ph.D., psychologist and performance coach and consultant in Boston, tells SELF. Post your goals on your fridge, write them in dry-erase marker on the bathroom mirror, or write them down in a journal. Journaling can also help you reflect on your progress, Kloubec says. “Honest reflection can help you to see how you may be sabotaging yourself or to recognize patterns of behavior.”
4. Make your resolutions public.
We’re more likely to achieve our resolutions when we make them public. “Sharing our goals holds us accountable, so it’s harder to back out,” John Norcross, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, tells SELF. While sharing with your journal and bathroom mirror help, too, they don’t count as “other people.” Tell your best friend about your New Year’s resolution, and check in with her on the reg to chat about it and make sure you’re on track. Better yet, get her on board so you’re both working toward the same goal.
5. Plan your followthrough.
Your resolution should never just be another item on your to-do list. At first, your goal was new and exciting, so you were inspired to make time for it; three weeks in, the novelty may wear off, Emanuel Maidenberg, Ph.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California in Los Angeles, tells SELF. “If each morning you have to find a way to make your goal happen, you’re more likely to decide based on whether you feel like doing it, which we rarely do,” Maidenberg says. Plot out a monthly budget or schedule a week’s worth of workouts each Sunday so you don’t have to think about how to fit it all in. And attach your goal to another activity. For instance, if you want to meditate more, plan a nightly session for right after brushing your teeth.
6. Check in with yourself regularly.
Reassessing your goal throughout the weeks and months it takes to get there is essential. Once you start making changes, you may find your original goal was a little unrealistic. Instead of sticking with it once you find it’s probably not possible, feel free to tweak the goal as you see fit. “I would encourage people to, even after a month, reevaluate their goals,” Ward says. Look at your lifestyle and revise your goals to make sure they really work fit in, she suggests. “Then share with the person that you’re sharing accountability with, or write it down.”
7. Celebrate small successes.
If your focus is just on the endgame, it’s easy to feel discouraged when progress plateaus around the one-month mark, Kubiak says. That’s why it’s crucial to recognize and reward the smaller successes along the way. Rather than waiting until you’ve shed all 10 pounds, give yourself a mini “Yay, me!” celebration each time you drop 2. If your goal is to run a half marathon, don’t save the party for the finish line. After each long run, reward yourself with a good book, new music, or a night out with friends. To help you track important milestones and stay motivated along the way, use your journal.
8. Remember that it’s OK to slip up (then get back on track!).
If you’ve faltered, know that you’re in good company: “Having a lapse is common. In fact, 75 percent of resolution makers slip up within the first two months,” Norcross says. What really matters is how you handle it; there are those who spend several days feeling guilty over their misstep, and then those who acknowledge the screwup but get right back on track. Guess which group is more likely to succeed? “One setback shouldn’t undo all your efforts. Instead of stewing, figure out how to prevent it from happening again,” Norcross says. Blew this week’s savings on boots from Zappos? (We get it: free shipping.) Find a way to recoup what you spent: At Zappos, returns are free, too!
9. Don’t rely on others to get you where you’re going.
Asking people for support is smart, but to make your resolution stick, now is the time to learn how to be your own cheerleader. In fact, relying too heavily on a pal or family member to get you to do something can actually decrease your motivation to work toward your goals, a study in Psychological Science found. Your boyfriend might be great at getting you out of bed for your morning jog, but what happens when he’s out of town? Without any motivation to hit the treadmill on your own, you and the snooze button will become BFFs. To remind yourself why this goal is important to you, write little notes and post them where you’ll see them—your desk, the mirror, and that snooze button.
10. Stick with what works.
“Once your behavior starts to feel routine, it’s easy to assume you have this in the bag and can let down your guard,” Norcross says. “But that’s when you become vulnerable to missteps.” You may think that because you haven’t smoked in more than two months, you can lift your ban on going out with friends who do, or that you can stop keeping a food log because you’ve got the diet down. But those techniques were crucial to your success up to this point, and taking them away can dissolve your resolve. “Whatever you’re doing is working, so don’t stop!” Norcross urges.
11. Believe in yourself.
“Henry Ford said, ‘Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.’ People say that they want to make a resolution, but they don’t believe that they can actually accomplish it,” Kloubec says. If you know you’re capable of making your desired change, then believe it wholeheartedly. “If not, let’s re-think how we can phrase or re-format your resolution” to be something that you’re confident you can achieve, Kloubec adds.
When you reach your goal, it’s time to celebrate, of course. But it’s also time to plan how you’ll stick with them moving forward. Reaching a healthy weight, developing better eating habits, or getting into a regular fitness routine are all healthy lifestyle changes that are worth sticking with for more than just the year. Use your sense of accomplishment to further fuel your healthy habits so that you can keep feeling good—and proud of how you’ve bettered yourself—for years to come.