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How To Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions — For Real — With 5 Tactics

The numbers 2023 are spelled out in sparkling gold on a black background.
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Most of us have probably made a New Year’s resolution or two in our lifetime. But let’s be real — how many of us have stuck to it? Invariably, something comes up that throws us off course, or we get busy with our regular schedules, and before we know it, another year has gone by. Researchers have even studied the phenomenon and found that, indeed, New Year’s resolutions often get tossed by the wayside come mid-January.

The fact is, in order to stick to a resolution of any kind (and at any time during the year), it takes more than just saying you’re going to do it. Here are five steps to making — and sticking to — newly set goals.

Do New Year’s Resolutions Even Work?

They do, said Charles Duhigg, writer for The New Yorker and author of Smarter Faster Better (Random House, 2016) and The Power of Habit (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2014). The catch is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be New Year’s, but any major milestone.

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“Setting a resolution around a life moment, whether it's a New Year's resolution, when you're turning 40 years old, when it's a birthday, when it's the anniversary of your marriage, does give us some additional motivational power,” said Duhigg.

With that being said, setting a resolution isn’t a magic bullet, nor is it a guarantee that you’ll succeed. What you have to do is… well, resolve to work at it.

Anticipate Failure And Make A Plan

Part of trying to change one’s behavior is anticipating failure. You will likely not use the gym membership as much as you thought you would at first, or cave and smoke that cigarette, or sleep in when you meant to wake up early. All of that disappointment and discouragement is “part of change,” said Duhigg.

To combat it, make a plan.

The plan should involve small, doable steps that will allow you to know what you have to do every day to accomplish your goal. Want to run a marathon? Start with one mile, or even a half-mile. Want to lose 20 pounds? You have to lose the first pound first.

“We have to break it down into small steps,” said Duhigg.

What A Habit Is, And How To Create One

A habit is comprised of three parts, said Duhigg: a trigger for an automatic behavior to start, the behavior itself, and a reward. Part of creating new habits is incorporating all three parts into the plan. So, leave your sneakers by the bed to trigger yourself to put them on and run. Do the run, and then give yourself a small reward, like a piece of chocolate or a nice long shower, after the behavior.

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“I need that reward to basically trick my brain into saying, ‘Oh, I like running, this is a nice thing,’” said Duhigg. “I should make this something that's easier to do.”

Managing Setbacks And Learning From Smokers

Here’s the thing about New Year’s resolutions, changing habits or trying to accomplish a goal: there are going to be setbacks and obstacles. If you go into your journey knowing and accepting that, you’ll be ready when they happen, and you won’t beat yourself up. You are going to fail. And then, guess what? You’re going to try again.

“There are going to be setbacks … and we know a lot about this from smoking,” said Duhigg.

Researchers have found that on average, serious smokers who try to quit have to give up cigarettes seven times before it sticks.

“There's this pretty predictable pattern which is, someone says, ‘Okay, I'm gonna quit smoking,’ and they give up cigarettes for three weeks for four weeks and then their mother-in-law shows up, or they have a bad day at the office … and the first thing they do is they grab for those cigarettes,” he said. This pattern continues until finally, they see it as just that: a pattern.

Setting An ‘Implementation Intention”

Once the pattern has been identified, a person trying to set up a new habit can set what’s called an "implementation intention." That means coming up with a plan for something else to do when, in the past, you may have relied on a cigarette, or a drink, or a pastry to calm your stress. It also means looking ahead to potentially stressful events.

“This is really, really powerful because then you say, ‘Okay, look, when my mother-in-law shows up, instead of smoking, I'm gonna let myself go to the movies in the afternoon and just kind of chill out,’ and that works,” said Duhigg.

Inevitably, of course, another stressor will pop up again, because that’s life. And that’s when we need to stick to our implementation intention, and to remember that changing behaviors can take years.

“As we train ourselves to anticipate failure, as we train ourselves to anticipate obstacles and challenges, we learn how to get beyond them much better,” he said. “So the idea is just accept, there's going to be days that are hard … what's my plan on how to recover?”

Listen to the conversation on our newsroom's public affairs show AirTalk:

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Listen: How To Keep Your Resolutions
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