Ditch Your New Year’s Resolution and Do This Instead

By Jessica Hicks
January 10, 2022

New Year’s resolutions get a bad rap—for good reason. One survey found that 80% of them are doomed to fail. It would seem that it's not so much a matter of if we’ll fall off the resolution bandwagon but when. And while there isn’t consensus on a concrete date, most research indicates that we tend to throw in the towel by early to mid-February.

So what makes sticking to our resolutions so hard? On one hand, we aren’t great at setting ourselves up for success. We often come up with goals that are seriously out of reach: “I’m finally going to run that half-marathon this year,” you might think to yourself, only to find out it’s only three months away. And that training plan? Let’s not talk about that.

On the other hand is an obvious, but often overlooked, truth: A resolution isn’t a magic bullet to finally lose that weight, or begin that meditation practice, or organize those piles of papers, once and for all. When we set a resolution, we’re actually embarking on the long and hard journey that is forging a new habit.

By letting the arduous process of habit formation fall under the guise of a New Year’s resolution, we fail to recognize the complexity and intensity that are naturally part of the behavior change process. Habits take time and require us to focus on the journey rather than the final destination.

5 Steps to Making a New Year’s Resolution Habit

When we call a New Year’s resolution what it is—a new habit that will take time, energy, and devotion—we can then take the steps necessary to make it happen.

1. Set a Framework—but Ask for Feedback, Too

When you first set a goal, it’s important to hone in on the specifics, like how to hold yourself accountable, when you’re going to work on it, and when you’d like to cross the finish line. But setting up a framework for creating your new habit is only half the battle. To keep yourself on task, research suggests you should seek feedback along the way.

The results of a study from the University of Texas at Arlington, published in 2021, suggest that when focusing on a task over a long period of time, goal-setting helps but only goes so far. Receiving feedback may be the key to improving motivation and attention over time. What’s more, the study indicates that getting feedback can also be a great way to regulate thoughts unrelated to the task at hand.

You might be wondering what this could look like in action, especially if there isn’t a clear person to give input on your progress. Here's a little secret: Your sounding board doesn’t need to be in on your goal. They simply need to be someone you can trust to give you compassionate and candid feedback and keep you accountable on your journey.

2. Keep Close Tabs on Your Progress

Monitoring your progress may seem like an obvious step toward making changes to your lifestyle, but what’s less apparent is just how often you should do so. Simply put, the more frequent, the better. A meta-analysis published by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2016 suggests that people who track their progress when striving toward personal health goals—like losing weight, quitting smoking, changing their diets, or lowering blood pressure—are more likely to achieve them.

Interestingly, the same study also finds that recording your progress in a public forum may have an even greater impact on your ability to achieve your goals. So, if that half-marathon is calling your name, joining a running group where you can share your mile times as you keep training may help you cross the finish line.

3. Switch Up Your Motivational Tactics

Staying motivated is more than engaging in positive self-talk and posting inspirational quotes on social media—it’s a science. And the science suggests we benefit from using different motivational strategies while striving toward a goal; otherwise, we run the risk of losing interest.

In a study published in 2017 in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers explain that when we initially set out to achieve a goal or forge a new habit, we’re first motivated by positive activities and behaviors we can adopt to make progress, like eating balanced meals if we’re trying to lose weight. This is known as promotion motivation.

The researchers suggest that later down the line, once we’re closer to our desired results, we shift to “prevention motivation,” which puts the focus on steering clear of pitfalls, backsliding, and other behaviors that can block us from our goal.

According to the findings, you may be able to get a leg up on your goals if you incorporate promotion motivation strategies at the get-go (going for consistent runs as you work toward that half-marathon), identify a point at which you’re close to your goal (perhaps you hit a certain mile time, or are a few weeks out from the race), and then engage in prevention motivation (like skipping that late night on the town so you’re not too tired to go for a run in the morning).

4. Focus on Your Approach Rather Than Avoidance

While avoiding certain things and actions as you get close to achieving your new goal or habit is beneficial, research suggests you don’t want your goal or habit itself to focus on avoidant behaviors. Research published in the open-access journal PLoS One notes that people who set approach-oriented goals as their New Year’s resolutions were more successful than those who set avoidance-oriented goals.

Picture this: You set a goal of running four times a week in preparation for your half-marathon. Your friend and running buddy also wants to run the race, but their goal is to never miss a run in the lead-up to the big day. Odds are that you’ll be more likely to cross the finish line because you focused on your approach rather than the don’t-dos of the situation.

5. Practice Patience

Easier said than done, but exercising patience is perhaps one of the most important things you can do when putting your new habit into place. Research indicates it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a habit to truly take hold in your life, so if you’re on the hunt for some instant gratification, it may be time to take up a mindset more along the lines of “slow and steady wins the race.”

If you’re not seeing the results you want in the time frame expected, that’s okay. A little self-compassion and trust in the process will help get you well on your way to a habit that lasts.

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