Use Psychology to Make Your 2010 Resolutions Stick

Five things that successful New Year's resolutions have in common.

Posted Jan 01, 2010

It's time for our annual ritual of absolution and control - otherwise known as the New Year's Resolution. If you're like most Americans, your resolution will be the same one you made last year. And again this year it'll last until Valentine's Day.

But some resolutions work - about 20% make it to the two-year point. To give your resolution the best possible chance, learn from the winners.

Here are five things that successful resolutions have in common.

Make a Specific, Actionable Plan
Brave but vague goals fail. One of the reasons we're attracted to the notion of New Year's Resolutions is because we know deep down we get overwhelmed by day-to-day temptations. It's easier to control our behavior if we have a plan that takes daily decision making out of play. Planning also requires thought, and the more we think about something the greater our emotional investment and consequently our commitment.

For example, more Americans than ever before have resolved to spend less and save more in 2010. The ones that have a better chance of succeeding have made a list of the actions needed to take make it happen. So rather than to just say, "I'm going to spend less money" they say thing like "I'm going to spend no more than $20 a week on lunches," or "In January I'm going to research my monthly expenses to see what I can reduce."

Do, Do, Do
With the notable exception of exercise, most resolutions involve not doing something. Eating, drinking, smoking, shopping and spending, Internet usage, the list is long. When it comes to maintaining motivation, "not doing" is always harder than "doing." "Not doing" has been known to result in obsessing and ruminating - the opposite of where you want your mind to be when you're trying not to indulge.

The key is to replace time spent eating, drinking or dawdling on the Internet with something else. Keeping a log or journal has a strong success rate with habit-breakers partially for that reason. In fact nearly every successful self-help program has activities built in. Whether it's bowling to replace smoking or a book club to replace the Internet, be sure to fill the time that would have been spent on an unwanted activity with something else.

Shake it Up
While you're reorganizing your life remember that habits are linked to cues. Anyone who has quit smoking knows it helps to avoid the coffee or bar ritual that cues the urge to smoke. Similarly, if you can't resist a bargain don't go shopping and if you always overeat at the movies switch to DVD's at home. In other words - shake up your routine and your environment. This is more than avoiding temptation, it's rewiring brain circuitry.

New Year's resolutions have a giant advantage - a lot of social support. January and February are the least hedonistic months of the year, and coming after the gluttony of the holidays austerity can seem almost pleasant. For two months society reinforces several of our most popular resolutions. Carpe diem.

Get Real - Use Tangible, Visual Cues, Barriers and Rewards
Sometimes a few seconds of thought or momentary reminder of the big picture is all we really need to push aside temptation. Put physical barriers and cues in front of tempting situations - tape your credit card balance to your wallet each day or hang a favorite too-small outfit in your kitchen.

Tangible evidence of success is also motivating. Most resolutions have been attempted before and previous failure lurks in the back the mind. It's part of the allure of starting programs on January 1st - we mentally forgive the failures of the past year and start with a clean slate. Evidence that we've been (and therefore will be) successful is essential, especially when we've failed in the past. Jan, 39, found simulated fat in 5 pound rubber blobs on the Internet. For every five pounds lost, a new blob is displayed in her bathroom. "It's exciting to see what I've done and I can't wait to put the next blob out."

Alcoholics Anonymous chips are prized by those in recovery. Progress graphs, rewards, tokens are other "gold stars" (or fat blobs) encapsulate pride, affirm capabilities and refuel commitment.

Master of Mental Sabotage
The #1 slayer of resolutions is our mind. Mental games have more to do with unsuccessful resolutions than willpower or self-control. Here are three mental fallacies that spell failure:

Perfectionism - setting unrealistic goals feels virtuous on January 1st but guarantees failure. Flexibility and mini-goals rather than Herculean conquests are the tools of permanent change.

All or Nothing - setbacks should be expected and even planned for. Slip-ups are human but many give up or give in after the first slip, labeling themselves failures.

Blame - when it comes to resolutions it's all about personal accountability. There are always others and circumstances to blame. Success depends on responsibility. Which is another reason why it's truly great to have the support of others, but you have to have your own goal.

To the 75% of Americans resolved to change, best wishes in 2010.