Updated: Feb 1, 2022
In theory, setting New Year's Resolutions is a great idea. The problem is, many of us set the bar too high and end up failing somewhere in mid-January, and subsequently giving up. This can happen when we make resolutions that are too difficult, don't have a clear plan to achieve them, or make too many resolutions.
According to James Clear, "somewhere between 81 percent and 92 percent of New Year's Resolutions fail." That sounds pretty disheartening. But with these tips, you can find yourself as the person who DID make their dreams come true in the new year!
A desire for positive change is great.
The desire for positive change in our lives can be a very motivating force. There are things in all of our lives that we wish could be different. "According to the research of Dr. Anders Ericsson, motivation is the most significant predictor of success." (Psychology Today) The more motivated we are, the harder we are likely to work towards something, which in turn makes us more likely to succeed.
Not all motivation is created equal though. Some of us want to change for reasons inside ourselves, others want to change to please others. Psychology Today explains the different motivations for change like this, "The resulting four quadrants can each provide motivation, but will produce different experiences and outcomes.
Internal-positive: Challenge, desire, passion, satisfaction, self-validation (likely outcome: successful change, fulfillment).
External-positive: Recognition and appreciation from others, financial rewards, (likely outcome: some change, partial fulfillment, dependent on others for continued change and good feelings).
Internal-negative: Threat, fear of failure, inadequacy, insecurity (likely outcome: some change, possible relapse).
External-negative: Fear of loss of job or relationship, insufficient respect from others, financial or social pressures, pressure from significant others, unstable life (likely outcome: some success, high risk of relapse)."
They conclude that the Internal-positive motivation for change is most likely to be successful in the long term. So, before you decide to make your New Year's Resolutions, think about the motivations behind your resolutions. If you are coming from a positive place, and making the goal to please yourself, most likely you will have a high motivation to complete them.
Small, incremental changes are the most successful.
Obviously, small changes are easier to make than larger ones. It is great to dream big, but when you do, it is important to make a detailed plan with small steps along the way to back up those dreams. A goal is a dream with a plan. If you want to be able to succeed in your resolutions, it is important to break them down into small, manageable steps.
Small changes are easier to maintain than larger ones. Also, when you meet a goal, it is psychologically reinforcing. This reinforcement makes you excited to work on your goals again. The happiness you get from succeeding on your goals is called a Natural Reinforcer, according to Positive Psychology. "Natural reinforcers: reinforcers that occur directly as a result of the behavior (e.g., a student studies hard and does well on her exams, resulting in good grades)."
According to dentist BJ Fogg, positively reinforcing a small habit works like this:
"So how should you go about helping a patient develop a healthy habit, such as regular flossing? According to Fogg, the key is to start with flossing a single tooth.
Next, find a habit you already have and do your new habit immediately after. “For me and for most people, brushing your teeth is a solid habit. So that can serve as a trigger for the new behavior you want.”
Then, reward yourself. “You declare victory. Like I am so awesome, I just flossed one tooth. And I know it sounds ridiculous. But I believe that when you reinforce yourself like that, your brain will say yeah, awesome, let’s do that.”"
Your brain releases happiness chemicals when you succeed. So, you start with a small goal like flossing one tooth. You do it, then you get that reward in the form of happiness. Then, make sure you are doing the new habit at least 15 days, since that is how long it takes to form a new habit. After you have done that successfully, then make the goal harder. In this case, like flossing all your teeth.
As you go throughout the year, you keep increasing the difficulty of your goals incrementally, and eventually you will have some much more difficult new habits than what you had at the beginning.
Another example would be going to the gym. When I first started at the gym years ago, I would do 15 minutes of cardio every day. Then when I got used to that, I would move it up to 20 minutes, and so on. That way, your body has time to get used to exercising, and your mind has time to adjust to the new habit.
How many resolutions should you make?
When starting with new self-improvement habits, another important thing to remember is that you don't want to start too many new habits at one time. "The highest number you’ll find is changing three habits at once and that suggestion comes from BJ Fogg at Stanford University." (James Clear)
So short answer: don't make more than 3 New Year's Resolutions.
Starting with a small amount of resolutions is an easier way to be sure that you will be able to fulfill them. As I discussed in the previous section, forming new habits is difficult, and attaching the new habit to an old habit (like the brushing and flossing example), is likely to make them more successful. So you don't want to change ALL your habits at once, or you won't have an old habit as the trigger for the new one.
In my own life, I will typically split up my goals and resolutions across different areas of my life, so that I am making change in a balanced way. Typically, I will have a goal for my work, my finances, and my health. When I make goals for family, I make them together with my partner.
By having resolutions that are all very different, I find it is easier to work on all of them at the same time.
For example, my first goal is to learn to do 20 sit-ups. I start with 5, then 10, then 15, then 20. My second goal is to save $100 per month. My 3rd goal is to get a new certification for my job. Now, I can work on all these simultaneously because I am working on them 1) at different times of the day, 2) in different areas of my life, 3) none of them is the trigger for any of the others. Having resolutions that are very different makes them easier to work on at the same time.
What resolutions should I make?
Typically, at the end of every year, I do some journaling and introspection to think through what went well, and what I would like to do differently. After thinking about the year in review, I think about how I would like to improve my life for the next year. I identify what are the biggest problem areas in my life, and make resolutions relating to those.
When you make your resolutions, think about either the things that stress you out the most, or what would help you to be happier. Working on reducing stress and increasing happiness walks hand in hand.
Check out my new book, "Happy. Healthy. Rich. The smart mom's guide to living your best life" for more on the connections between reducing stress and increasing happiness.
Once you have your resolutions in mind, you can plan out all the steps you will take throughout the year to meet them.
Once you have made your resolutions, you will want to write them up as SMART goals. This will help you to form a plan of how you are going to set your interim steps to meet the goals.
According to Mind Tools, "To make sure your goals are clear and reachable, each one should be:
Specific (simple, sensible, significant).
Measurable (meaningful, motivating).
Achievable (agreed, attainable).
Relevant (reasonable, realistic and resourced, results-based).
Time bound (time-based, time limited, time/cost limited, timely, time-sensitive)."
In my example from earlier you will notice that most of them contain numbers. This makes them both Specific and Measurable. Making them Achievable goes back to the point about tiny habits, and not making resolutions that are too hard.
Time-bound means you set a date to meet the goal. You can do this with your big goal for the year (your resolution) and the small sub-goals that you use to get there.
If your original resolutions don't meet this formatting, you can easily rewrite them to be SMART. Then, you can put all your goals into a planner, or on a bulletin board so that you can look at them regularly, to be sure that you are on track with your goals.
Celebrating your wins helps to increase positive reinforcement for completing your goals. Every day, as you meet our daily goal, it will release positive chemicals in your brain that create reinforcement in the form of happiness. As you meet the other interim goals, and yearly goals, it is also great to celebrate somehow.
As you are writing your goals, you can also write what you will do to celebrate when you meet the goal. Mani-pedi? Spa day? Nice dinner? Something that makes you happy is a great motivator for your goals too and creates additional reinforcement when you follow through with rewarding yourself.
Think about what would be a wonderful reward for yourself, then do that for yourself once your goal is complete.
About 8 out of 10 New Years Resolutions fail. This is often because people make resolutions that are too hard, to vague, or too many in number. However your resolutions don't have to be doomed from the start. If you really want to make positive change in your life this year, think of three things you want most of all, and then turn them into SMART goals.
Also, don't forget to celebrate your wins, no matter how small. This will help reinforce both your new positive habits, and your goal-setting behavior in general. Let me know what you think in the comments, I always love hearing from you!
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