Making Your New Year’s Resolution Stick

7 Tips for Setting and Achieving Your Goals in 2014

By Brigid Darragh

2014 is in full swing, with most of us having returned to the office after an extended hiatus of holidays and cookies and eggnog and snow days.

For many, Monday marked the first day people gave their New Year’s resolutions a real go. (I wrote earlier this week about my own New Year’s resolution.)

Flickr Creative Commons / Lori Ann

How is 2014 going for those of you who made New Year’s resolutions?

Is the prospect of 11.5 more months of eating better or putting the kids to bed earlier so you can read for a few minutes each night completely and utterly daunting?

Did you find yourself, cold and grumpy, driving to the gym in the dark, early hours of day three thinking, “Why did I think I could do this for a whole year?”

The truth is you’re not alone.

Most of us make resolutions based on behaviors that we would like to modify or stop completely for a reason. It’s not easy to go cold turkey on something that has become a habit or a lifestyle.

I sat down with two psychologists this week to talk about methods for setting and sticking with resolutions. The good news is there are specific ways to go about making and following through on your goals for this year—and beyond.

Gina Magyar-Russell, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and a professor in the Department of Pastoral Counseling at Loyola. La Keita Carter, Psy.D., also a licensed psychologist, is director of the psychology division for the Loyola Clinical Centers and teaches psychology at Loyola.

They shared with me seven tips for making, following through on, and seeing results with New Year’s resolutions—whether your goal is to quit smoking, to spend more time with loved ones, or to squeeze in 30 minutes of exercise each morning before work.

1. Make SMART resolutions.

Carter advises setting goals that are SMART— that is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.

“Don’t set goals like ‘I will be happier this year.’ That’s not specific enough. Additionally, how do you know when you have arrived at happiness if you can’t really measure it? What’s more, this goal doesn’t have a timeline.”

Along those same lines, Magyar-Russell says to avoid setting “pie-in-the-sky goals, like being a better person.”

She too recommends breaking down larger goals to fit this model: “Set small, concrete goals that you can measure.” She says that often means being as specific as possible.

“Quitting smoking shouldn’t be the goal from the get-go,” Magyar-Russell explains. “That’s a large goal, and it might be hard to attain without breaking it into more manageable steps. To quit smoking by 2015 might be the long-term goal, and you can give yourself a realistic and measureable way to achieve this goal. And be specific. For example, if you smoke 15 cigarettes a day now, perhaps set yourself a goal to cut out two cigarettes per day by Feb. 1.”

2. Map out a behavioral action plan for you to follow.

Setting quantitative goals and then coming up with a plan to follow through on them sets successful resolution-keepers apart from those who see their goals go by the wayside come February.

“Typically any kind of goal you set that you will have success in keeping will be fostered by using behavioral principles,” Magyar-Russell says. That’s why it’s important to come up with a process—and a way to track your progress. “Monitor and chart your success, and then make use of rewards and re-enforcers.”

If we use a resolution to lose weight as an example, set a day and time—say, Friday morning before you get in the shower, to step on your bathroom scale. Keep a weight loss journal and jot down your progress each week.

If you’re trying to exercise more, keep a log of the days you made it to yoga during the week, or buy a pedometer and track and chart your steps taken each day.

Carter advises making the goals a part of your daily routine. “Write goals on your bathroom mirror with a washable marker, or post a list on the refrigerator. Set a date to check on the progress of your goals and put that date in your phone so that you get a reminder.”

Reward yourself for the incremental goals you achieve. If you meet your goal of exercising every day for the first three weeks of the year, buy yourself that new gym bag you’ve had your eye on. Having a new bag could serve double-duty to re-enforce your new exercise routine.

Part of your process for success might include identifying your weaknesses and making a plan to avoid these weaknesses.

“People know their weak spots, and they should account for them ahead of time. Don’t trust your willpower. Know yourself and avoid these weak spots instead of trusting that you will do the right thing when you approach the fork in the road,” Carter explains.

3. Budget time for yourself to plan, learn about, and seek and make use of the appropriate resources for meeting your goals.

“People who have success in keeping their resolutions have set aside time to make a plan of action. They are organized in their goal-reaching process,” Magyar-Russell says.  Let’s say your resolution is to become a vegetarian. You will likely need to learn what to buy at the grocery store. Set aside time in your schedule early on to learn about how this lifestyle choice might affect your nutrition. You might need to make a trip to a vitamin store to educate yourself on and purchase supplements.

“People get stuck in that phase of planning and organizing, and all of a sudden they don’t have time to actually modify the behavior they set out to resolve. As a result, they are less likely to succeed,” Magyar-Russell explains.

4. Make a set list of allowances.

Many people find it helpful to identify and list certain times or circumstances when not adhering to their resolutions is acceptable. This makes us more easily integrate them into our day-to-day lives—which are, truth be told, unpredictable.

If, for example, your goal is to exercise every day in 2014, perhaps your allowances include missing a workout because your child is sick, or due to working late because you are on a deadline.

However, acknowledge and hold yourself to the fact that it’s not acceptable to let yourself miss a workout if you’re just plain tired.

5. Hold yourself accountable.

It’s important to check in with yourself as you plan, monitor, struggle through, and ultimately (hopefully!) succeed with your resolution.

Be honest with yourself. Half the battle is reflecting on why you made your resolution in the first place. Why was making a change important? What led you to want this change in your day-to-day life?

If you’re not responsible for making this change, who is?

Magyar-Russell suggests taking it one step further and having a daily check-in with a friend.

“If your resolution is to stop gossiping, text your friend at night, and tell them how you did that  day… how many times you talked about someone else, why you decided in the first place to stop doing that, how it makes you feel when you avoid gossip versus falling into its trap.”

6. Enlist support.

Magyar-Russell encourages those making resolutions to share them with a support system. This could include friends, siblings, coworkers, a spouse, or a neighbor.

Enlist these folks for encouragement and even the occasional check-in.

And don’t forget about God. Enlisting God through prayer is a powerful way to renew your intention to your resolution as well as strengthen your spiritual life.

“A lot of people don’t take time to enlist spiritual resources that could help them—like asking people to pray for them as they go through their journey,” Magyar-Russell says. “People tend to forget that piece. We tend to be so independent that it carries over into our spiritual life as well.”

7. Don’t be afraid to fail and start again.

Carter draws a parallel between your resolutions and the plays made by a football quarterback. “If a quarterback concentrates on the three interceptions that he threw in the first quarter, he won’t be any good during the second quarter. If you mess up, don’t get so disappointed in yourself that you give up on your goal. Pretend that your mess-ups were in the first quarter and start the second quarter fresh.”

She points out that there is a lot of pressure to start anew in January. Many people think if they don’t have a spotless resolution month in January, they’re doomed. But the first 30 days don’t have to make or break the entire year… and in fact, this month might be a good time to set, plan for, and amend your goals for the rest of 2014.

“If you don’t have a good January, it’s OK. Start over in February,” Carter says.

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