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6 Ways to Make Your New Year's Resolution Stick

If you're determined to make meaningful change, these suggestions can help.

Key points

  • Cognitive and behavioral strategies can help you make the most of your New Year's resolutions.
  • Personalizing your rationale for change and being specific about what change looks like can give a resolution more power.
  • Use cues to promote new behavior and reinforcement to strengthen it.
  • Practical and psychological setbacks are to be expected, but realistic and useful thinking can help you get back on track.
Source: Peggy_Marco/Pixabay

If you find yourself struggling year after year to follow through with your New Year's resolutions, the problem might be too much resolution, not enough solution.

As much as you might hope that determination alone will help you get to bed earlier, train for that 5K, or drink more water, if you don't create and implement a solid behavior change plan, you run the risk of struggling early and often, giving up, and beating yourself up for not living up to your expectations.

Your enthusiasm for change might be high after the holidays, but eventually, there will be challenges--low motivation, fatigue, boredom, responsibilities, stress, and the temptation to do almost anything else that doesn't seem like such a burden.

Instead of depending on good intentions, consider taking these practical steps to help you rely less on self-discipline and more on a realistic plan that will lead to long-term success.

1. Personalize your rationale.

You're more likely to commit to a new behavior if you have a meaningful reason to do so. If you've been sedentary for a long time, or you just don't enjoy exercise much, perhaps you've tried to convince yourself to work out regularly because "I'll feel so good." This works for people who are intrinsically motivated to exercise, but if you avoid working out because it seems like an exhausting chore, it won't be persuasive enough to get you to the gym.

Instead, consider the personal value of making a change. For you, exercise might seem appealing because it could help you sleep better, alleviate medical symptoms, or create an opportunity to spend time with friends who like to work out. Give some thought to your rationale for change and identify a personally significant reason to be consistent.

2. Be specific.

It's difficult to commit to change if you're not clear about what you intend to do. Resolutions to "socialize," "take time for myself," or "get more work done" are good starts, but you're more likely to be successful with specific, actionable plans to "attend the Wednesday night book club," "do 30 minutes of creative writing after school," or "answer work emails right after coming back from lunch."

If your resolution includes a clearly defined behavior, it'll be easier to remember, implement, and keep track of your progress. And reflecting on your specific improvements can boost self-efficacy, which is a confident belief about your ability to execute a behavior and keep it going.

3. Choose small but meaningful actions.

When it comes to behavior modification, a good rule of thumb is to commit to the smallest change that you'd still consider to be meaningful. If you drink water inconsistently, a plan to "drink a gallon a day" might seem like an inspiring challenge, but is it realistic?

If you realize that you were too ambitious and can't keep the change going, there's a good chance you'll question your effectiveness, drop the plan, and acquire more hopeless beliefs about changing this behavior in the future. If drinking eight ounces of water after you wake up is something you're confident you can do, and you'd judge that change to be a success, consider making that your resolution. Remind yourself that achieving a smaller goal is still a big deal, and if you're occasionally feeling more motivated, you can always do more.

4. Replace "problem" behaviors.

If you resolve to do less of something, such as snacking, scrolling on your phone, watching TV, or smoking, changing your behavior is likely to come with a sense of deprivation. If you restrict an activity that's been a regular part of your life, there's a good chance you'll have a strong urge to get back to it. People who try to follow a low-carb diet, for example, often find that their cravings for starch and sugar become so intense that they end up tossing the diet plan to indulge in pizza or mac and cheese.

A good way to minimize the deprivation problem is to prioritize an alternative, desirable behavior that seems like a reasonable substitute for whatever you're hoping to limit. Instead of "taking fewer afternoon naps," consider "taking a post-lunch walk." Instead of "eating less junk food," consider "eating a serving of vegetables with dinner." Instead of "not watching TV before bed," consider "reading a book before bed."

A good way to identify a replacement behavior is to think about the function of the "problem" behavior and choose an activity that serves a similar purpose. For example, if you drink alcohol after work to unwind, you could resolve to start your post-work day with a trip to the dog park, some stretching, meditation, or a bath before deciding whether you still want to drink a few beers.

5. Make before and after plans.

Identify a cue to remind you to engage in your new behavior and a controllable post-behavior event to reinforce it. Parents are famous for using this tactic by reminding kids to eat their vegetables (cue) with the promise of after-dinner dessert (reinforcement) to increase the likelihood that they do. You can use the same methods to your advantage. If you tend to skip breakfast in favor of coffee, set an early-morning reminder on your phone (cue) to make breakfast and drink coffee (reinforcement) afterward. If you and your friends aren't good about reviewing textbooks for class, meet them at a coffee house (cue), agree to read for 20 minutes, and then chat with everyone (reinforcement) when you've all finished. Even small behaviors can be modified in this way. If flossing your teeth isn't a part of your bedtime routine, find a place for it by washing your face (cue), flossing, and brushing your teeth (reinforcement). The great thing about this approach is that it includes both reminders for new behaviors and already habitual activities to strengthen them.

6. Find useful responses to setbacks.

Change is hard. You may go through periods where you struggle with difficult thoughts and feelings. Ideas like "this is too hard" or "I can't do this" can drive depression or irritability, and not staying consistent can lead to global, overly self-critical beliefs about your self-worth or effectiveness.

Practical and psychological setbacks are to be expected, so go easy on yourself and prepare some useful comebacks. For example, if you treat setbacks as evidence that there's something wrong with you, that you can't do anything right, or that things will never get better, see if you can be more specific about the problem. Did something external to you like work demands or social obligations create an obstacle to change? Are other things going well in your life, but you're struggling with a specific behavioral challenge that could benefit from more attention? Is this a forever setback or is it temporary?

Once you have a more realistic understanding of what's happening, give yourself some advice. What do you think would be useful? It may help to revise your plan, eliminate obstacles, set boundaries, problem solve, or ask a friend or family member to help out. Do what you can to increase your sense of personal control and get back to your routine. When you work through cognitive, emotional, or practical sticking points, you give yourself evidence to support new, more useful beliefs, such as "I can change behavior," "I can persist," "I can solve problems," "I can get back on track," and "I can support myself."

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