How to Make Your New Year’s Resolutions Stick

Almost half of the adult American population will make New Year’s resolutions, but less than half of those will have successfully adhered to their new ways come July 4. Changing bad habits is no easy task, so if you do decide to resolve to make changes, let me propose a few suggestions to increase your odds of success.

First, before you resolve to do anything, take a close look at what you have (or haven’t) done during the year that’s coming to a close that you wish had transpired differently. Did you gain weight? Did you spend too little (or too much) time on developing your career and necessary skills? Did you not exercise as often as you know you should have? Did you yell at your kids too much, argue with your partner, sass your parents? Spend too much? Fail to nurture your spiritual side by not attending church or meditating regularly? Whatever you’ve not done that you are determined to do differently in the coming year, it’s essential that you take a very close look at what stood in the way of your achieving success in the year that’s coming to a close. Just as doctors can’t successfully treat a condition unless they diagnose it properly, you need to be able to critically look at where you’ve fallen short and what’s contributed to that shortfall. Although this can be a difficult task for a lot of people, because it’s hard for them to view themselves objectively, it’s essential if you want to create a realistic plan that will help you reach the goal that you’ve set. Two suggestions: first, enlist the help of an objective outsider who can help you diagnose the problem (this could be a life coach or a friend or family member who’s not too emotionally wrapped up in the problem); second, formulate a plan that involves small, achievable, and concrete steps.

To take a couple of examples:

1) Let’s say you’ve gained 10 pounds over the past year, and you’re determined to lose them plus five more in 2012. All the determination in the world is not going to lead to success unless you know where you tend to go off track and can make a judgment about what adjustments would be easiest (and most realistic) to make. Too many late night pints of ice cream? Or those two martinis every weeknight after work? Relatively small changes can, over the course of a year, lead to impressive results. For example, reducing your ice cream intake by a pint a week would result in losing those 10 pounds by the end of the year. Skipping one of the two martinis every Tuesday and Thursday – seven pounds.

2) You’ve been unhappy at your job for the past three years but can’t seem to take action to initiate a process that will result in movement forward. What gets in the way? You might feel that the process is going to require more energy than you have, or it’s unclear where to begin, or you doubt that the effort required will lead to a worthwhile result. Or all of the above. Generally, people are discouraged from changing when they look at their goal and feel that it’s way too far off, or the route there is too complicated. Take one step in the direction you want to move and then reassess. The path that leads all the way to your goal may be obscure at the starting point, but will become clearer as you move forward one step at a time. So you might pledge to read a book on career change, talk to a friend who’s gone through the process, or make an appointment with a career counselor.

3) You’ve looked back and seen that you haven’t spent enough time with the kids, and pledge to correct that in the coming year. Too vague a pledge. You need to know what tends to get in the way of spending the time you should (e.g. exhaustion at the end of the workday, or the weekly softball game that you play with your buddies every Saturday afternoon) and then determine a small step that can move you in the desired direction (setting aside an hour on Monday evenings, before exhaustion has a chance to accumulate over the course of the week, or having the kids come with you to the game 1/2 an hour early so you can toss around the ball with them).

One last suggestion: there’s a good chance that you’ll “fall off the wagon” fairly early on in the process. Forgive yourself – we’re all fallible – and get back on track as soon as you can. It may take longer than you’d like to reach your goal, but that’s a lot better than waking up a year from now and realizing that you gave up and made no progress at all.