How to turn New Year’s resolutions into long-term solutions

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We’re halfway through January. How are your New Year’s resolutions doing? For many, the end is nigh: Data collected by the activity-tracking service Strava indicate that most people give up on their resolutions by mid-January (Jan. 19, to be exact).

Maybe you set a goal to eat more fruits and vegetables, or get more sleep, or rein in your spending. Whatever you’ve resolved to do, the key to seeing it through is to break up big goals into smaller milestones, says Christie Chung, psychology professor and associate provost at Mills College. Northeastern announced a merger with the Oakland, California-based college earlier this year that will establish Mills College at Northeastern University in July 2022.

Christie Chung, professor of psychology and associate provost at Mills College. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

“Oftentimes, it’s difficult to keep our goals because they’re just too big,” Chung says. “We get frustrated along the way and just give up. To make our goals achievable, we need to think shorter-term.”

Take sleep, for example. If you’ve been going to bed at 1 or 2 in the morning and setting a goal to get under the covers by 9 or 10 p.m., switching from one extreme to the other would be a huge undertaking. “You’d basically be changing your time zone,” Chung says. Instead, try moving up your bedtime by 30 minutes to an hour each week.

Setting smaller, incremental goals—such as an increasingly early bedtime—can boost your confidence and move you closer to your overall resolution. Chung also recommends rewarding yourself along the way as you achieve those smaller goals.

Another important part of sticking to a New Year’s resolution? Slowly changing your habits.

“Habits are unconscious behaviors that are easy to fall back on,” Chung says. “In psychology we refer to them as ‘heuristics,’ these kinds of mental shortcuts.”

If you’re in the habit of reaching for crackers when you’re hungry, swapping them out for a snack of fruit or vegetables will require conscious decision-making for a while. Chung suggests creating a plan to structure these changes, and being patient with yourself in the meantime.

“Our brains like things that are pleasant, easy, and comfortable,” she says. “When you think about changing behaviors in general, it’s helpful to think about why you’re working toward it. Eventually, your brain and body will get used to the new habit you’re creating, and you won’t have to work so hard to choose it each time.”

Getting social helps, too. Pick a buddy or utilize a coach to help support you along the way. “This is one area where peer pressure can be a good thing,” Chung says.

If you find yourself straying from your goal, all is not lost. Rather than approaching resolutions as high-stakes, all-or-nothing behaviors, use those same small goals as checkpoints along the way. And keep in mind the reason behind your actions.

“Think about why you’re making this goal and what it means to you,” Chung says. “It’s easier to get wherever you’re going when you keep the meaning in mind.”

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