Try these science-based tips for keeping your resolutions alive.
Turning over the last page in the calendar often brings the desire to turn over a new leaf in life.
According to research, only eight percent of people stick with their goals for the new year for longer than 30 days. Luckily, the field of behavior change is making headway in finding out what actually works to help people stick with their resolutions and potentially make lifelong changes.
Get Clear on Your Why
Making a life change is not easy, and in order to make the change stick you’ve got to connect your reason for the change to the bigger picture. What will your life look like when you are healthier, more present, and have more energy? Spend time imagining that new reality and how it feels, looks, and even smells to get your whole self-involved in living with that changed perspective.
In order for a change to last, it has to mean something to you. It doesn’t matter how much other people, even those you deeply love, want you to make a change. If it doesn’t come from a place inside of you, it won’t be meaningful enough for you to stay with it. You might even end up resenting the people you are changing for. When considering making a change, ask yourself how much you want it, regardless of what others think.
Being vague when making resolutions is tempting. Getting healthy, saving more money, and starting to meditate are common resolutions made to ring in the new year. With that kind of general language, there is no way to measure whether or not you are succeeding. When you make your resolutions highly specific, you drastically increase your chances of success because you are able to clearly measure whether or not you did what you set out to do. For example: “Eat more vegetables” can become “Eat one cup of vegetables at lunch and dinner and try two new vegetables per week.”
“Exercise more” can become “Go to one yoga class and two cardio classes each week and take a ten-minute walk around the neighborhood after dinner on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday.”
Plan for Failure
Life can get in the way of the best intentions. When you think ahead and consider what might derail your plan, you can create strategies ahead of time. You can stay on track, even if it’s a slightly different track than what you had planned. This approach has far-reaching consequences. It trains your brain to look for solutions, even for setbacks that you may not have anticipated.
When making resolutions, it’s tempting to go for a full life overhaul. It is a new year after all. The problem is that you set yourself up for disappointment when you try to do too much at once. Making small goals—and actually accomplishing them—builds your confidence in what you know you are able to follow through on.
When you create a specific plan, ask yourself: “Is this realistic for me and do I feel confident that I can follow through?” If the answer is no (perhaps because of all the other factors in your life at the moment), scale back until you can honestly say yes.
There is immense power in announcing your goals for change, especially when you share them with people who believe in your ability to follow through. Resist trying to find support from those who will roll their eyes at your plans or try to lure you away from them. Social support can help you reach your goals faster, so make a plan with friends to meet up for a walk every week or prepare healthy dinners every Sunday. Simply checking in with someone who is also committed to change to see how things are going is powerful.
Humans live with what psychologists call a negativity bias. One aspect of this is that we excel at beating ourselves up when we make a mistake.
If you don’t follow through on something one day, or an unforeseeable bump in the road sidelines you for a time, don’t give up on yourself and wallow in shame or guilt. Offer yourself some true compassion and self-talk that lifts you up rather than puts you down. Recognize that you are human and that all humans make mistakes.
You can then return to the reason you want to change in the first place and recommit yourself to the process wholeheartedly.
On the path to behavior change, setbacks will happen. Life will hand you unexpected change out of the blue: a death, a breakup, a cross-country move. When you can adjust your plan instead of giving up on it entirely, you continue to create that new, healthy habit.
Changing your approach doesn’t mean you have failed at your goal, it simply means that you have become a ninja yogi, capable of breathing and back- bending through the wild ride of life.
Learn to Surf
Many changes we make involve giving something up. A useful tool for managing urges in the moment, whether it is an urge to smoke, to have that sugar-laden dessert, or to choose the couch over the walk, is called urge-surfing. You notice your urge, or your discomfort with not having something, and you become completely present with it. Use your breath as an anchor and feel the wave of the urge crest and ultimately dissipate. As soon as you are able, recommit to your goal.
Harness Your Willpower
If you don’t follow through on your goals, you may be tempted to blame a lack of willpower.
Health psychologist and researcher (and our cover subject for this issue) Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, describes willpower as a competition between two parts of ourselves. One part seeks immediate gratification. The other part has the bigger, longer term results in mind. We have to access our willpower any time those two parts of ourselves have competing goals.
Research has found four main interventions that can help swing the pendulum away from short-term gratification and towards long- term goals. Doing just one of these will make a significant difference in your ability to have a long-term perspective in the choices you make.
• Sleeping and meditating, even just for ten minutes a day, creates changes in our prefrontal cortex, which is the part of our brain that is responsible for keeping us on track with our long-term goals and our core values.
• Physical exercise helps by increasing the size and connectivity of regions of the brain that are important for decision-making. Not only does starting to exercise make it easier to do more exercise, it also makes saving money and eating healthier easier.
• Eating a plant-based and low-glycemic diet provides the brain with the most efficient energy for making the best choices. When your blood sugar is dipping and spiking, you will tend to choose the thing that will make you feel better in the moment rather than what is best in the long term.