Setting New Year’s resolutions has gotten a bad rap. There are a lot of statistics and articles out there that say lots of people don’t achieve their New Year’s goals. If you are like most people, if you don’t believe something will work for you, you aren’t likely to invest much energy in trying. The good news however is that psychology research shows that the success rates for setting resolutions is approximately ten times higher than the success rate of people who want change but do not make resolutions! Also, multiple attempts at self-change result in higher success than those who only make single attempts.1 So even if you didn’t achieve your goal last year or the year before, research shows us the more times you try the more likely you are to succeed. The vast majority of resolutions are positive life changing goals, so the answer is YES, you should absolutely set a New Year’s resolution!
So how can you do it in a way that is likely to really increase your success?
Make sure you have the right goal. I once had someone I was working with tell me she wanted to lose weight. This is an extremely common goal and she was objectively somewhat overweight, so I could have taken her goal at face value, but instead I asked her why she wanted to lose weight? Because I want my boyfriend to love me more and I’m afraid if I don’t he might leave me. It was apparent she was using her goal of losing weight to solve an unrelated problem. What she really wanted was to feel more loved and secure in her relationship. When people use goals to solve unrelated problems they generally lack the proper motivation to achieve the goals. Before you set any goal, ask yourself: Why do I want to achieve this?
Be very specific. Many people set goals such as I want to lose weight or save money. This is a good place to start but in order to be successful you have to get your goal down to a behavioral level where you can take specific actions. This is what you will do to actually accomplish your goal. I am going to stop drinking Starbucks in the morning and put the extra $20 a week in a savings account. You will know your goal is specific enough, when it is measurable. You can measure whether or not you put $20 a week into your savings account.
Start small. It is human nature to want to jump to the finish line. I want to lose 50 pounds, eat healthy, and exercise 5 times a week. That is an excellent goal but for most people this is way too big. If you set a goal the feels overwhelming, you are far more likely to give up sooner. Set your goals no more than one months at a time. I want to lose 5 pounds in January is a far less daunting goal. Then break it down even smaller. I want to lose 1.25 pounds per week. That feels even more doable. The more possible your goal seems, the more likely you are to stick with it. Also, the success you feel by achieving the small goals gives you motivation to keep going. If you stay on target with the small goals, you will eventually get to the big goal finish line.
Have a plan for the obstacles. I always tell people that you need two plans to achieve a goal not just one. You have to have a plan for the goal itself and a plan to get around the obstacles to your plan. Even if someone really knows what they want to do and is highly motivated to achieve it, not dealing with the obstacles can self-sabotage the best of intentions. We tend to be creatures of habit and many times the biggest obstacle to change is our current way of doing something, so we need a plan to do it differently. Spend some time thinking about what the obstacles are to your new goal. If you want to go to the gym three nights a week, but every time you get home from work you turn on the TV and get sucked into the couch, then lose your motivation, plan around the obstacle of going home. Create a plan to get around the obstacle, such as taking your gym clothes to work so you can get to the gym before you go home.
Setting goals and achieving them is the way that we create our life experiences and it is one of the most rewarding things we do. Don’t back away from a goal just because you haven’t achieved it in the past, remember the more times you try the more likely you are to succeed!
Jennice Vilhauer, PhD, is the director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program at Emory Healthcare, and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life.
Norcross, John C., Marci S. Mrykalo, and Matthew D. Blagys. "Auld lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self‐reported outcomes of New Year's resolvers and nonresolvers." Journal of Clinical Psychology 58.4 (2002): 397-405.