At the beginning of every year, millions of Americans set resolutions for the upcoming 365 days. Making those goals stick past the first week of January, however, can prove challenging. In fact, Laura Dudley, assistant clinical professor and director of the Applied Behavior Analysis program at Northeastern, says research suggests that while roughly half of America sets New Year’s resolutions, “only approximately 8 percent of us report that we achieved those goals by the end of the year.”
Maybe you’re usually part of that 8 percent. If not, we asked Dudley for some tips to set yourself up for success in 2017.
Frame resolutions with specific behaviors
Perhaps the most important step to take toward achieving a goal is to frame it in terms of the specific behaviors we’ll engage in, rather than in terms of general outcomes, Dudley said.
“For example, rather than setting a goal to lose weight, identify the concrete behaviors that might lead to weight loss, such as eating healthy foods or exercising a certain number of times per week,” she said.
Likewise, rather than “resolving to get organized, resolve instead to create a filing system for the papers that have taken over the kitchen table,” she said.
“This may involve a bit of research to determine what specific behaviors will lead to that overarching goal,” Dudley said. “However, framing resolutions in terms of observable, measurable behaviors rather than outcomes of those behaviors will likely lead to more success.”
Track your progress
Seeing the progress we’ve made toward our goals is another strategy for staying on track, Dudley said. An example she offered: If your resolution is to save more money, track how much you’re saving each week and consider putting it into a graph to see it more visually.
“Research suggests that simply tracking our own behaviors may lead to improvements such as reductions in electricity use and cessation of cigarette smoking,” Dudley said.
And technology can help. “These days there are plenty of apps available that make tracking one’s own behavior as easy as inputting the data into a smartphone,” she said.
Make it positive
Rather than identifying what you won’t do, focus on what you will do.
“Consider framing resolutions in terms of the behaviors that you will engage in rather than describing the behaviors you will stop engaging in,” Dudley said.
For example, if your goal is to eat more healthily, you have a better shot at success if you start each day with a goal of eating healthy foods, rather than if you start each day with a goal of not eating junk food.
Be optimistic, yet realistic
Resolutions should give you something to strive for, but they shouldn’t be out of reach.
“One potential pitfall to not meeting New Year’s resolutions is setting goals that are too lofty,” Dudley said. “Setting a goal that is unachievable will likely lead to a return to past histories of behavior.”
She added: “Consider your baseline or your starting point. Do you want to spend less time on your phone and currently spend approximately eight hours on your phone per day? You may want to start with a goal of spending five or fewer hours on your phone per day and then shift your criteria for achievement as you meet each step toward your goal.”
Say it loud, say it proud
Don’t keep your goals secret, Dudley said. Tell your friends and relatives about the changes you’d like to make.
“This may lead to more accountability, as friends and relatives may ask you how your progress is going, praise you when you’re engaging in behaviors toward your goal, and make comments when you’re not,” she said. “Social reinforcement can be very powerful. You may also find that your friends have similar resolutions, in which case you may work together to meet your common goals.”
A ‘new you’ doesn’t need to start on New Year’s Day
“Finally, while the New Year offers a fresh start, remember that Jan. 1 isn’t a magic date when it comes to making changes,” Dudley said. “Set goals when you are ready to take the steps to achieve those goals. That may be Jan. 1, but it may be March 15. Consider turning over a new leaf when you have a plan you are comfortable following—not when the calendar tells you it is time.”