More than half of all resolutions fail, but this year, they don’t have to be yours. Here’s how to identify the right resolution to improve your life, create a plan on how to reach it, and become part of the small group of people that successfully achieve their goal.
Pick the Right Resolution
You’ll give yourself your best shot at success if you set a goal that’s doable — and meaningful too.
According to the time management firm FranklinCovey, one third of resolutioners don’t make it past the end of January.
A lot of these resolutions fail because they’re not the right resolutions. And a resolution may be wrong for one of three main reasons:
- It’s a resolution created based on what someone else (or society) is telling you to change.
- It’s too vague.
- You don’t have a realistic plan for achieving your resolution.
Your goals should be smart — and SMART. That’s an acronym coined in the journal Management Review in 1981 for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. It may work for management, but it can also work in setting your resolutions, too.
- Specific. Your resolution should be absolutely clear. “Making a concrete goal is really important rather than just vaguely saying ‘I want to lose weight.’ You want to have a goal: How much weight do you want to lose and at what time interval?” said Katherine L. Milkman, an associate professor of operations information and decisions at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “Five pounds in the next two months — that’s going to be more effective.”
- Measurable. This may seem obvious if your goal is a fitness or weight loss related one, but it’s also important if you’re trying to cut back on something, too. If, for example, you want to stop biting your nails, take pictures of your nails over time so you can track your progress in how those nails grow back out, said Jeffrey Gardere, a psychologist and professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine. Logging progress into a journal or making notes on your phone or in an app designed to help you track behaviors can reinforce the progress, no matter what your resolution may be.
- Achievable. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have big stretch goals. But trying to take too big a step too fast can leave you frustrated, or affect other areas of your life to the point that your resolution takes over your life — and both you and your friends and family flail. So, for example, resolving to save enough money to retire in five years when you’re 30 years old is probably not realistic, but saving an extra $100 a month may be. (And if that’s easy, you can slide that number up to an extra $200, $300 or $400 a month).
- Relevant. Is this a goal that really matters to you, and are you making it for the right reasons? “If you do it out of the sense of self-hate or remorse or a strong passion in that moment, it doesn’t usually last long,” said Dr. Michael Bennett, a psychiatrist and co-author of two self-help books. “But if you build up a process where you’re thinking harder about what’s good for you, you’re changing the structure of your life, you’re bringing people into your life who will reinforce that resolution, then I think you have a fighting chance.”
- Time-bound. Like “achievable,” the timeline toward reaching your goal should be realistic, too. That means giving yourself enough time to do it with lots of smaller intermediate goals set up along the way. “Focus on these small wins so you can make gradual progress,” Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit” and a former New York Times writer, said. “If you’re building a habit, you’re planning for the next decade, not the next couple of months.”
Create Your Plan
Your end goal won’t just magically appear. Here are ways to figure out how to get there.
Because you won’t just wake up and change your life, you not only need a plan for what to do, but also for what roadblocks you’ll come across along the way.
If you’re trying to form or break a habit, Mr. Duhigg suggested breaking down that habit into its three parts: a cue, a routine and a reward.
Bad Habit: I check Twitter too often.
Cue: I feel isolated.
Routine: I check Twitter.
Reward: I feel connected.
Way to change the behavior: Instead of checking Twitter, get up and talk to a colleague.
What about if you have a really bad health habit?
Bad Habit: I smoke.
Cue: I’m tired.
Routine: I smoke a cigarette.
Reward: I’m stimulated.
Way to change the behavior: Instead of smoking a cigarette, replace the stimulus with something else, like coffee.
Or if your habit affects your whole day?
Bad Habit: I don’t get enough sleep at night.
Cue: I feel like I need time to myself in the evening.
Routine: I stay up too late watching TV.
Reward: I’m entertained.
Way to change the behavior: Instead of staying up late to watch TV, carve out special time each day to spend by yourself, even if that may mean asking for help with your children or taking a break from work each day.
MAKE IT PERSONAL
Of course, the cue and routine for a common bad habit, like smoking, is as individual as the person trying to quit. You may need to do some work to figure out what the real cue for the habit you want to change is, and then what will replace it.
Both the cue and reward should be easy and obvious. Let’s look at one example in depth. For running, a cue could be just putting on your running clothes, even if at first you don’t do anything after that. “Oftentimes when people have never exercised before, and researchers are working with them to get them to exercise, the first week is: You should just put on your running clothes. Don’t even leave the house,” Mr. Duhigg said. Then add the first step in the new routine: Put on running clothes, walk around the block. “You want to create an environment where you’re making very slow progress that is guaranteed to deliver victories to you,” he said.
And then the reward at the end of the action must be an actual reward, too, so that it reinforces the routine and makes you want to do it. “Otherwise your brain won’t latch onto the behavior,” Mr. Duhigg said.
For example, if you run in the morning then rush through your shower and your commute, you might end up at your desk sweaty, so in effect “you’re punishing yourself for running,” he said. Your brain will pick up on that punishment and push back against the intended activity. Your resolution didn’t necessarily fail because you failed, but because you were trying to do it at the wrong time, which resulted in a punishment instead of a reward at the end. For running, a reward can be a nice long shower, a piece of chocolate or indulging in a feeling of pride, which can be reinforced by tracking your running in a journal and writing that down.
But while your plan should be realistic and encouraging, it should also allow for inevitable hurdles that are going to crop up. Pauline Wallin, a psychologist and author of “Taming Your Inner Brat,” said any resolution plan should include room for mistakes. “You’re there for the long haul. You have to expect slip ups,” she said. “There will be times when you will say, ‘I’ll make a mess of things and I’m just going to start again tomorrow.’ Don’t berate yourself. Focus on what you’re doing good for yourself rather than what mistake you made,” she said.