New Year’s resolutions should be banished (or at least rebranded). Here are three ways to make your goals stick.

By Heather Mayer Irvine
Updated: February 06, 2019
Photo: Tetra Images / Getty

Let’s say it’s a few weeks, even a month, into the new year. You had such high hopes that this year would be your year. You’d eat more vegetables, exercise every day, lose those pesky 10 pounds. Your skin would shine, your hair would be voluminous. And now, you missed a green smoothie and all hope is lost.

Or is it?

“One of the problems with New Year’s resolutions is if they don’t work out it seems like a done deal,” says clinical psychologist Sherry Pagoto, Ph.D., a professor in the department of Allied Health Sciences at the University of Connecticut. “Behavior change requires evolving goals and plans. This whole process gets lost in New Year’s resolution thinking, which just focuses on a day to set a goal and not much else. There’s nothing magical about January 1.”

Yes, there is an allure to a fresh new year, and there’s nothing wrong with that, says Pagoto. But it’s important not to let the idea of the new year set you up for failure.

So, how do you make goals to live healthier that will stick?

Stop Calling Them New Year Resolutions

“Resolutions have a reputation for being broken,” says Pagoto. “And that might affect people’s motivation. It becomes a joke.”

Instead, if you choose a goal for the new year, let’s say to train for a 5K or 10K race, there are steps you have to take to achieve that goal. For example, you’ll have to find a training plan, perhaps cut back on your alcohol intake, and nab a few extra hours of sleep. These steps are behavior changes that will help you achieve that goal, says Pagoto.

And one day, you may wake up and not feel well (hello, flu season!), and miss a day of training. Does that mean you can’t run the 10K? Absolutely not. It means you needed extra rest. But if you had set a resolution to run every single day and you missed one due to illness or travel plans, you might say all hope is lost and you’ll try again next year.

One approach to trying out new lifestyle changes is taking it one month at a time to see what behaviors line up with a person’s overarching goal.

Meghan Kita, 32, has set goals for every month this year.

“I wanted to try on a bunch of different habits to see if any of them stuck,” she says, noting that she’ll keep doing the ones that work well with her long-term goals.

January is Kita’s month for daily meditation. April will be Instagram-free, and in June, Kita will ditch the use of all plastic bags.

Strike While the Iron Is Hot

The other big problem with setting New Year resolutions, says Pagoto, is the timing.

With a fresh slate looming, people often think they’ll deal with their problems after the holidays. But November and December are actually the months people are more likely to gain weight, says Pagoto, especially if they have big lifestyle plans for January 1. Why? They’ll let loose knowing change is coming. But that hardly ever works.

“If you’re feeling like you need a life change, it’s best to take advantage of the moment when it’s on your mind rather than kicking it up the road,” she says. “Waiting will delay progress, and it could create more of a mess to clean up.”

Set Measurable Goals

When you say you’re going to “exercise more,” what’s more? The same thing goes for setting a goal to “eat healthier.” What exactly does that mean?

“If you don’t see any results, it’ll be harder to stick to your goals,” says Pagoto.

For example, if you decide you want to lose 10 pounds, that’s a measurable goal. But that doesn’t mean by the end of week one you’ll see the scale shift, and that’s okay. You’ll be able to measure progress in other ways, says Pagoto.

Exercise can play a significant role in weight loss and maintenance. So on your way to losing those 10 pounds, you’ll increase your physical activity, which has benefits that go beyond weight loss.

“By the end of the week, you might notice that your mood is improving, you’re sleeping more and that sleep is more restful,” says Pagoto.

Plus, she points out, body composition changes—more muscle definition, decreased blood pressure—often make themselves known before the number on the scale moves.

“And once you see that progress, you’ll want to keep going,” she says.

No matter what month it is.

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