How to Make a New Year’s Resolution Stick

January is the month dedicated to new beginnings and fresh starts. Without fail, on January 1st we collectively breathe a sigh of closure for the year past and hope for the year ahead.

We all start off with the best intentions – lose weight, make time for family, save more money. But no matter how hard we want to change, 92% of us fail to follow through with our new year’s resolutions.

Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail

So, what’s happening? Why do we try year after year, without success, to set a new year’s resolution? Turns out, there are a few factors at play, and our brains are actually working against us.

The most obvious reason why resolutions fail is that we simply choose goals that aren’t easy to keep.

It doesn’t matter what that specific resolution is, the fact that you’ve chosen it as a thing that needs to change in your life, means that it’s something that doesn’t come easily to you. After all, how many of us make a resolution to eat more chocolate or to sit on the couch and watch more TV? We choose resolutions that are already a challenge for us.

Another resolution trap is in the psychology behind setting goals. Simply put, making a goal feels good, but working towards that goal…well, that doesn’t feel as good.

When you think to yourself, “This year, I’m going to eat healthier,” you feel good about yourself. You feel motivated and even get a sense of accomplishment just by thinking about eating healthier; setting a goal satisfies our need for instant gratification. But when that craving for pizza strikes and you’ve resolved to not give in, that’s when the real work starts.

New Year’s resolutions also have to go up against a very strong force – a habit.

Breaking a habit can feel impossible because we have to actually change our brain structure to change our habits.

The neurons in our brains work together to form synaptic connections over time. When we repeatedly perform a task, those connections get stronger and stronger, forming a habit. Ever try to turn on your bedroom light during a power outage? You know you can’t turn on your light, but when you walk into your room, your hand reaches for the switch anyway because that neural connection has become very strong.

How to Make a New Year’s Resolution That Will Stick

The good news is that acknowledging this neurological connection can help you change your habits. When you understand what’s going on in your brain, you have a better shot at controlling it.

  1. Baby Steps Wanting to eat healthier is a great goal but expecting to go full-on raw vegan when you love steak, is just setting yourself up for failure. Instead, set small, achievable benchmarks, like having one meatless meal a day. Once your smaller goals are easy to meet, build on that progress by setting another, more challenging one to work towards. Similarly, remember that there will be times when you don’t meet your goal and that’s totally fine. Knowing that there will be missteps will help you stay motivated to get back on track after you stumble.
  2. Set Specific, Measurable Goals Saying you want to “save more money” is a nice thought, but it can be difficult to actually set it into motion. A goal that instead lays out a plan of actions that will result in saving money is a better way to see results. Rather than saying you’re going to “spend less,” look at where your spending could be trimmed and figure out a weekly budget plan – but be sure to pick a plan that you’ll actually be able to stick to. If you love eating out, a budget that cuts out restaurant spending will likely fail for you.
  3. Change your Perspective Once you’ve recognized which habits you’d like to change, try taking a cue from the ancient practice of mindfulness. The basic concept here is to try to disassociate any negative emotions from the new habit you want to create, and instead, see things through an unbiased lens. If you don’t like exercising but your goal is to work out more, try shifting your train of thought from an obligation (“I have to exercise”) to a fact (“I work out on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays”). If you can remove the negative feelings from the task at hand, you’ll start to loosen that neural connection, which could make forming new habits easier.

Keep in mind, strong habits (like not working out) will be difficult to break, so be patient with yourself.

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Diamond, Dan. (2013, January 1). “Just 8% of People Achieve Their New Year’s Resolutions. Here’s How They Do It.” Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/dandiamond/2013/01/01/just-8-of-people-achieve-their-new-years-resolutions-heres-how-they-did-it/#28869692596b

Dodgson, Lyndsay. (2018, January 7). “The psychology behind why we’re so bad at keeping New Year’s resolutions.” Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/the-psychology-behind-why-we-cant-keep-new-years-resolutions-2018-1

Maldarelli, Claire. (2016, December 29). Why your brain makes New Year’s Resolutions impossible to keep. Retrieved from https://www.popsci.com/how-to-use-brain-science-to-stick-to-your-new-years-resolutions

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