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On Making (and Keeping!) New Year's Resolutions

A few psychological tips to help your resolutions stick

I love January 1st. It's the feeling of a clean slate, wiping off all my mistakes from the past year and starting the new year with the best intentions. I've never been one for formal resolutions, but I like the idea of a fresh start. But so often, the best of intentions are a distant memory come February 1st (Hey! This year isn't so different from last year... it's just as hard to get out of bed early, exercise often, and not get distracted from work by social media as it was in 2015).

Even though 2016 will bring the same challenges as 2015, a "fresh start" is a good way to kick a new habit into high gear. So take the time to think about what you'd like to do better this year and set yourself up for success with these tips:

1. Start right away. Don't wait until it gets warmer out to start exercising or the holiday leftovers are gone to start eating healthier. New beginnings can catalyze change, so capitalize on that energy and get going with the changes you want to make. The longer you wait, the harder it will be.

2. Keep it small. Too many resolutions and you won't be able to keep track of them all. Make a list of everything you'd like to do better in 2016 and then pick the two or three that matter most to you and focus on those first.

3. Give yourself time. Habits aren't built in a day. People vary in how quickly they are able to adopt a new habit, but one study found that, on average, it took people 66 days to automatize their new habit.

And finally, perhaps the most important of all:

4. Make your resolution concrete. As important as what you are going to change is how you are going to change it. This year, try using implementation intentions. This is a big name for a fairly simple strategy: instead of making a vague resolution such as “get in shape”, make a concrete resolution that specifies where, when, and in what way you are going to implement your resolution. This strategy helps you automatize your new habit faster.

Do you want to resolve to get in shape this year, and actually do it? Get specific with your resolution. Instead of saying “I’m going to start running” or even “I’m going to start lifting weights 3 time per week,” set out all the nitty gritty details: “At 6 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I am going to stop whatever I am doing, put on my running clothes and go for a 30-minute run,” or “After I finish my lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I am going to put on tennis shoes and spend 20 minutes at the gym next to my office.”

The great thing about implementation intentions is that they can be applied to all of your resolutions. Want to get organized? Make a plan: “Every Saturday morning, before I get dressed, I will empty out one drawer or cupboard and throw away anything I’m not using," or “Every night before I go to bed I will spend 5 minutes washing any dishes in the sink.” Want to live life to the fullest? Think about what that means for you and implement it. Do you love nature? Then tell yourself, “The first weekend of every month, I will go hiking in a regional park that I’ve never been to before.” Or if you’re into art, maybe you want to plan “The first Sunday of every month, I will visit a new museum or art gallery in the city.”

Make it doable. Stating “every morning at 4 a.m. I am going to run 4 miles” is NOT a good way to ensure your goal of getting in shape is going to succeed. Likewise, telling yourself “every night I will do all the dishes and bleach the counters and mop the floors” is a good plan for making sure your kitchen stays messy for another year. Begin with something that you know you can actually achieve. Five minutes of dishes each night is easy to work into the routine, and after it becomes automatic you can add another goal on top of it “after I spend 5 minutes washing dishes, I’ll sweep the floor.”

The bottom line: Use the New Year as a catalyst for a fresh start by starting right away, keeping it small, giving yourself time and making a plan that is simple, doable, and as detailed as possible.

Are you making resolutions this year? Are you good at keeping your resolutions? What strategies do you use?

Teaser image credit: Soloviova Liudmyla/Shutterstock

More from Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D.
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