Wondering how to keep your new year’s resolutions? If you’re wanting to go from “set and forget” goals to actually accomplishing a meaningful lifestyle change, small but significant changes in your habits are key. Instead of constantly feeling like you fall short, learn how to set specific goals and track your progress.
Keep reading for expert tips on how to fulfill new year’s resolutions, including practical solutions for making your new year’s resolutions stick.
Why Make a New Year’s Resolution?
Setting new year's resolutions has almost become as polarized as politics. Some people believe in the power of resolutions and others firmly opt out once the new year rolls around, favoring other practices like monthly metrics or goals.
In any case, the new year is a clear transition into a new season of life. Many people measure their own progress by how the year went as a whole. For example, many people remember the year they quit smoking because it was such a significant step forward for them.
Many people despise new year’s resolutions because the goals they set aren’t realistic. In essence, the resolutions fail because they are designed to fail, instead of evolving with them as the year goes on.
The Psychology of New Year’s Resolutions
In psychology, the “big picture” goals are often called superordinate goals. While these goals are somewhat vague, they still relate to the desired state the goal-setter wants to create. They are rooted in a sense of identity and some sort of belief system.
Superordinate goals are often used to help two opposing parties to come together and work towards a common goal. They can also be broader, long-term objectives designed to hold yourself accountable. On the other hand, subordinate goals are more concrete while still allowing for flexibility.
Subordinate Goal Examples
For example, a superordinate goal could be “exercise more to feel better.” This could be a resolution you set for yourself, or an objective you share with a spouse, employer, or friend to help keep you more accountable. The subordinate goal that supports this could then be “wake up at 6 a.m. each morning to swim laps.”
Goals that are subordinate also account for flexibility and personal differences. For example, instead of a specific time and place, you could have a subordinate goal to “move for 20 minutes in a way that feels enjoyable by the end of the day.” While some people need the structure of a consistent exercise schedule, others thrive when some spontaneity is allowed.
Subordinate goals are generally the short-term, day-to-day steps you take to accomplish the overarching superordinate goals. Other examples of subordinate goals in this situation could be:
• Do 10 push-ups on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday
• Hydrate before, during, and after working out
• Set out gym clothes the night before
• Go to yoga class today at 5 p.m.
Both superordinate goals and subordinate goals are important and interconnected. Superordinate goals help you keep the “big picture” in mind and stay accountable, while subordinate goals provide actionable steps for everyday. Staying consistent with small shifts in your schedule supports the overall goal you’re trying to achieve.
How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions
Statistics show that about 6 weeks into the year, people’s resolve has waned (with as much as 80% of people dropping their resolutions at this point). By the end of the year, that number increases to 90%. So, how do you stay part of the 10% who actually accomplish what they set out to do at the beginning of the year?
Set Specific and/or Challenging Goals
Being specific with your goals allows a clear metric for you to measure your progress by. For example, instead of just vowing to “eat healthier,” you can set a goal to meal plan on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. If you aren’t seeing the progress you want, you can look back and see if you’ve been accountable to this goal.
As mentioned above, some people are less likely to accomplish their goals if they get too specific. In this case, choose a clear goal that challenges you (without getting too specific). For the same goal of eating healthy, this could look like building a more balanced plate whenever you eat (using a tool like MyPlate), or purchasing lunch boxes with dividers for easy meal prep in a hurry.
The key here is to choose a system that works for you. If you are someone who needs specificity, try scheduling an exact time and place to meet your goals. If you’re the kind of person who needs a more vague mark to hit each day, try setting up reminders or tools to support yourself in rising to the challenge (whatever time of day you choose to accomplish them).
Choose Resolutions That Resonate
Too often, it can be easy to set the same goals friends and family members do. For example, we might mistake adopting a friend’s goal to lose weight as having an accountability partner in that pursuit. Sometimes, it’s a mix of both.
Before you dive headfirst into a new resolution, it’s helpful to check in with yourself. For example, if you’re interested in losing weight as a goal, ask yourself “Why am I interested in weight loss? Is this a goal I’m interested in or did I simply select it because it was suggested?”
The SMART goal pattern of resolution planning suggests that a goal should be relevant. Not only should the goal matter to you, but it should also be made for the right reasons (not for other people’s reasons).
It’s no secret that picking a goal you’re passionate about makes it easier to stick to. The statistics above suggest that the 10% whose resolutions stick have a sort of inner compass keeping them accountable. The goal is more than a checklist item, but rather a resolution of who they are becoming.
Search for Support
Goals aren’t meant to be a solo endeavor. As you go about setting goals, search for ways your support system can help keep you accountable to the changes you’re making.
There’s no shame in asking a friend, family member, or even a health professional to check in with you a couple times a week. Many group coaching programs and support groups are even designed that way, so you can share goals with people in your same stage of change.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
Instead of creating a complicated system, try simple steps that support you in achieving your goals. Remember, a challenging goal can become attainable by taking simple steps each day. The old adage, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”, rings true when it comes to resolutions.
When planning your resolutions, work smarter (not harder). For example, if your goal is to floss each day, set a reminder on your phone to go off every night at 9:30 p.m. If your goal is to eat breakfast each day instead of skipping it, start with easy recipes like overnight oats instead of planning a three-course morning meal.
Start chipping away at your overall goal with simple steps that ease you into the process. You may find, one day, that you floss without even thinking about it.
Replace a Bad Habit with a Better One
Goal setting shouldn’t just be about getting rid of bad habits. The goal to stop smoking is a classic example of why bad habits need to be replaced with a better routine.
A helpful practice when you’re quitting smoking is to replace the stimulus of smoking with a different activity, like drinking coffee. You’ll still get a little jolt of energy but will reduce the risks to your health. Eventually, following this same pattern, you can reduce your caffeine intake by replacing coffee with matcha tea, and so on.
Sleep hygiene is another excellent area where this concept comes into play. Instead of cutting screen time before bed “cold turkey”, you can replace scrolling social media before bed with reading an ebook. Then, you can go from reading online to appreciating a paperback novel. Eventually, this practice can support you in getting better sleep and feeling better throughout the day.
Don’t let the void of a bad habit be filled by another bad habit. Achieve your goal by filling the time left over by your bad habits with better, more productive practices that help turn you into the person you want to be.
Adjust Each Month
In an effort to reach your goal, it’s important to allow for evolution. Many new year’s resolutions fail because they aren’t allowed to change. You may find by the end of January that the goal you set at the beginning of the year isn’t manageable anymore.
Instead of ditching the whole plan, allow for adjustments at the start of each month. Do a sort of audit by asking yourself, “What worked this month? What didn’t?” This gives you 12 opportunities to begin again throughout the year, instead of waiting until year’s end to get closer to your goals.
For example, if your goal is to do more journaling this year, assess how you did during January. Did journaling in the morning feel unattainable once you actually put it into practice? In February, try journaling at night, and set an appointment with yourself in your schedule to reassess at the beginning of March. Make small adjustments as necessary until you find a habit that sticks.
Identify Obstacles Along the Way
The saying “anything worth having won’t come easy” holds some truth. Obstacles are inevitable along the path to reaching your goal, but they don’t have to derail your efforts.
One helpful tip for navigating barriers is to have a backup plan. When setting your resolutions, ask “what could get in the way of my goal?” For example, if you want to be on time to your appointments, have a plan for when inclement weather gets in the way (i.e. leaving 10 minutes earlier than you normally would).
Other barriers may be less obvious but equally frustrating. For instance, fear might get in the way of accomplishing a goal. In this case, you can acknowledge your fear with the help of a mental health professional by participating in counseling. A professional can often help you to identify barriers and put practical tips for removing them into place.
Recapping How to Fulfill Your New Year’s Resolution
Successful new year’s resolutions are more of a process than an event. Knowing your passions and personality traits can help you set up simple, smaller steps to achieve your bigger goals. Adjusting as needed can help you accomplish something significant by the year’s end.
Cleveland Clinic. Tips To Keep Your New Year’s Resolution. Health.clevelandclinic.org. Published December 2022.
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Höchli B, Brügger A, Messner C. Making New Year’s Resolutions that Stick: Exploring how Superordinate and Subordinate Goals Motivate Goal Pursuit. Appl Psychol Health Well Being. 2020;12(1):30-52.
Shwantes M. Studies Show 91 Percent of Us Won’t Achieve Our New Year’s Resolutions. How to Be the 9 Percent That Do. Inc.com. Published January 2022.