5 Steps to Turning Your New Year's Resolutions into Reality

Research suggests how to create positive and lasting change in the new year.

Posted Jan 02, 2016

It happens every year: the turning of the calendar brings with it a certain existential reckoning. Who am I? Am I where I’d like to be in life? What would I like to change or do better? For many of us, this reflection gets shaped into a clear resolution. "I am going to lose weight!" "I will pay off my credit cards!" "I will quit smoking!" And for many of us, the resolution is a fun, energizing diversion for a few days or weeks, until it gets hard and we quit.

Personally, my resolution is to stop mindlessly scrolling through Facebook. I do it all the time. I did it several times while writing this post. When I reflect on my day, I often think, “Today I would have been happier and more productive if I hadn’t spent so much time on social media.” As I take on a big writing project this year, it’s becoming more and more apparent that this habit has simply got to change. And I don't want this to be an empty promise. I want to follow through on this one.

You likely have something you'd like to work on as well. So, how do we translate this valuable self-reflection and motivation into actionable strategies and lasting change? Research suggests several important do’s and don’ts.

Separate the shoulds from the wants. Trace the source of the little voice in your head that is telling you to be tidier, lose weight, start your novel, or get off of Facebook. Is this desire genuinely, authentically you? Does thinking about it excite and inspire you? Does it just feel right? Or are you bowing to social pressure or to the wishes of your parents, partner, or friends? For a new goal to stick, you really need to be doing it for yourself.

Make a concrete plan. Even if your goal is authentically yours, it’s unlikely to come to fruition without a firm set of steps. Don't just say, "I will lose weight" or "I will save money." Those kinds of resolutions are noble but far too vague. Instead, ask yourself, on a daily basis, how will you actually make this happen? How will your plan be sustainable? Map it out. Put it on your calendar. Tell others. What we need to do is make new habits, and make this healthy new behavior the default. As such…

Realize the power of habit. As you reflect, also think about how the behaviors you’d like to eliminate are often done very mindlessly or automatically. For instance, I often catch myself clicking on the Facebook icon on my phone while waiting in line or when I hit a lull at work. Later, annoyed, I ask myself, “How did I just lose 15 minutes to reading friends’ updates?” You can fight the power of habit with some attention to your behaviors, and also by making these bad habits harder to enact. For example, I am deleting Facebook from my phone. That way, I can’t mindlessly check it. Simple, but powerful. Our habits are comfortable and changing them will be jarring and uncomfortable for a little while. Push through that, and soon you won’t miss them! (For a fascinating read on habits, check out Charles Duhigg’s excellent book.)

Know the limits of your willpower. Research by Roy Baumeister and colleagues has firmly established that we only have so much willpower, or self-control. This valuable resource can be used up if we attempt to exert effortful control over multiple things at once. This is why a full-blown overhaul of your life – say, eating healthier while also quitting smoking, exercising daily, saving money, keeping a tidier house, and not letting emails pile up – is doomed to fail, especially if these are all new, non-natural behaviors for you. Choose one thing. Maybe two. And know that when you’re feeling tired or overworked, your resolve might waver. (I'm sure I'll give in to the lure of Facebook when I get stressed.) Know too that your motivation will likely return as your self-control replenishes itself...so don't give up if you have a bad day!

Practice self-compassion. Because of the surprising power of habit, because your willpower will sometimes be drained, because you are a real, flawed person, you’ll likely stumble on your path to progress. You might get discouraged, feel like a failure, and be motivated to give up. Don’t. Instead, practice what psychologist Kristin Neff calls self-compassion, a forgiving mindset that you extend to yourself in the face of failure or setback. In our culture, we often equate this with slacking off or being too easy on ourselves, but Neff has uncovered many upsides to self-compassion. Those high in this trait are actually less prone to depression, anxiety, rumination, and perfectionism. (You can assess your level of self-compassion here.) If you need some work in this department, think about how you might talk to a friend who is struggling to achieve important goals. Would you tell her to just give up? Would you call her a loser or a failure? No! You would likely be kind and forgiving. Why not extend some of that same generosity of spirit to yourself? Try it!

May you achieve your goals and resolutions in 2016!