Here’s how to stick to your New Year’s resolutions

step by step

At the start of each year, countless people around the world resolve to change something about themselves, or indeed, many things about themselves. Whether it’s spending less time on social media and more time reading books; getting fit and losing weight; receiving a promotion or pay rise; or cultivating a calmer and more focused mental state, New Year’s resolutions are usually big goals that we feel certain will lead to a happier, healthier self.

It’s often around this time in January that we start to faulter and break our new year resolutions.

…But before we start berating ourselves, how much time did we actually spend thinking about the necessary steps that will give us the best possible chance of sticking to these resolutions?

Before we make our goals at the start of the year (or even the start of any week or month), how much time do we invest in methods to achieve lasting habit formation?

When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, we think (or possibly hope) change is going to happen overnight.

We too often don’t think about the actual steps we need to take to get there.

This is the biggest reason why New Year’s resolutions often fade as the month progresses.  

So let me guide you through some of the most effective methods for forming lasting habits, which will empower you to reach your goals—whether they are made at the beginning of a year or at any time throughout the year.

The best place to start is to realise why we make resolutions at New Year in the first place.

The “fresh start effect”

In 2013, behavioural economist Katherine Milkman published a study called “The Fresh Start Effect”. She defined the beginning of a week, month, semester or year, or even a birthday or holiday as a landmark in time.

These landmarks create “new mental accounting periods each year, which relegate past imperfections to a previous period, induce people to take a big-picture view of their lives, and thus motivate aspirational behaviors.”

This is exactly why New Year’s resolutions are so popular—because the new year promises a fresh start which motivates us to change our behaviour. The previous year and our previous habits are behind us, and with this comes a sense of optimism, the promise of “a new me,” as Milkman put it.  

However, if we are consumed by this sense of optimism and the promise of “a new me”, we run the risk of underestimating the amount of time and energy it actually takes to implement lasting change.

By focusing only on the end result, we also risk being too hard on ourselves when we slip up along the way. The simplest way to avoid a sense of failure and create lasting change is to set more realistic goals.

Ask yourself ‘why’ you want to change something. Our blog article ‘Find Your Motivation’ helps you find your real reason for wanting to set new goals and being true to your values.

Set one or two realistic and specific goals

Rather than become quickly overwhelmed by a handful of things you wish to achieve, one of the keys to success is setting only one or two highly specific and realistic goals.

According to Frank Smoll, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, “It’s better to have a systematic approach and identify the one or two that are the most important.”

When a goal is specific it will be much easier to maintain. Compare, for example, the goals of “get fit” to “exercise three times per week”. As the latter is measurable, it is possible to hold oneself accountable. If your goal is to reduce anxiety, adapt it to include activities that you know will help achieve this, such as “yoga and meditation at least three times per week.”

Dr Claire Maguire agrees and adds that to maintain sticking to your goals it helps to break down your steps into three realistic options – a very minimum activity, a maximum effort plus something in the middle. That way you are consistently doing something, and you don’t rebuke yourself failing.

It also helps to keep yourself accountable says Dr Maguire – keep experimenting to see what works and what doesn’t and feel gratitude for all the experiences you go through.

The Seven Rs

To sustain new behaviours and stick to your goals, psychotherapist and psychologist Dr Russ Harris recommends the “Seven Rs”: reminders, records, rewards, routines, relationships, reflecting and restructuring.

Reminders could be as simple as one or two words written on a Post-it Note or even just a colourful sticker—a simple reminder for yourself to keep trying. 

Dr Harris recommends keeping records of your behaviour each day, “noting down when and where we do the new behaviour and what the benefits are; and also when and where we do the old behaviour and what the costs are.”

We have extolled the benefits of journaling many times – how it builds understanding and awareness of our emotions and actions plus it helps to manifest our intentions.

Rewards could be as simple as encouraging yourself with some kind words, or treating yourself to a new book after completing one week of the new behaviour.  

As our Dr Claire Maguire also warns however – don’t call junk food a ‘treat’ for rewarding yourself, as this is counterproductive.

I’ve written previously about the importance of routines, and how establishing a morning routine is effective in helping us navigate these challenging times. Likewise, building a routine around your new behaviour or incorporating it into an existing one will mean that over time it will require less willpower to maintain.

Relationships are an important factor in helping you to stick to your goal, explains Dr Harris, which is why we might recruit a friend or colleague to be our ‘exercise buddy’.

You don’t necessarily have to perform a specific activity with another person however—you could simply check in with a supportive friend or family member at the end of the week to let them know how your progress is going.  

As Dr Maguire notes, “the commitment to check-in with someone keeps us accountable. This where the support of a wellbeing coach provides added benefit with accountability.”

Reflecting is perhaps one of the most important elements of forming a new habit and sticking to it, and it’s important that we do it regularly. The purpose of reflection, as we explain in our blog ‘A Time of Reflection’ is that it takes us from just ‘experiencing’ something to actively ‘understanding and awareness’.

Ask yourself the following questions during your reflection: How am I going? What am I doing that’s working? What am I doing that’s not working? What can I do more of, or less of, differently?

Restructuring is making any kind of simple change to our environment to assist our new behaviour. For example, we might carve out a small area of our home to dedicate to yoga and meditation.

As Dr Harris says, “The bottom line is: making changes is hard. We’re all capable of doing it — and it’s not easy. So set yourself up for success: small changes, baby steps, one brick at a time.”

Most important: be kind to yourself

With all the enthusiasm and optimism of New Year’s resolutions that we muster at the start of the year, when we slip up, it is crucial that we don’t instantly feel like we’ve failed. Changing behaviour doesn’t happen overnight and tomorrow is a new day.

LeeAnn Weintraub, a registered dietitian, suggests using positive self-talk and creating a mantra. “Avoid thoughts that can derail important habit change and remind yourself to move forward each day. A mantra, or unique set of words connected to your goal, can help keep you determined and focused.”

Our Dr Claire Maguire is strong believer in the power of affirmations and their ability to shape our reality. Listen to her ‘I Am’ meditation to replace negativity with positivity and remind ourselves that we are good enough.

You also shouldn’t feel bad if you need a day off every now and then. “Understand that we all have those moments when we fall down. If you miss a day, it’s OK. Pick it up the next day,” says meditation instructor and health coach Pilin Anice. “This is a season for self-compassion, grace for yourself, and love for yourself. No self-sabotage for 2021.”

What should you do if you’re struggling to stick to your goals?

Firstly, don’t give yourself a hard time. Set-backs are inevitable as Dr Maguire states, plus we think progress should linear, so when we have step backward, then self-doubt sets in, we feel we’re not good enough and we give up.

What we need to do is to reflect on ‘why did it happen?’ Were our expectations wrong? We need to evaluate & re-address. Maybe we need to set boundaries to help stick to our goals. It always helps to remember the bigger picture.

If you find that you keep slipping up and are really struggling to shape your new habits, you probably need some extra help, and this is where wellbeing coaching can be so helpful.

If you would like some personal wellbeing help, our renowned Dr Claire Maguire is available for private 1:1 coaching by phone, Zoom or Skype. Together you create your vision for your future:

“I coach intuitively which means I laser into what it is that you most need. Hence we progress quickly and positively together. I help instill motivation, encouragement and accountability on your journey.”

Find out more about Claire and how she can help you.

As the demand for mental wellbeing and emotional health is growing quickly, it’s an opportune time to get involved and become a Wellbeing Coach.

Find out more about our Wellbeing Coach training, and how you can help people now and into the future.

We wish you success on your New Year resolution journey…

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