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January 03, 2024

The best way to keep your New Year's resolutions? Set smaller, specific goals

People often fail to make lasting changes because they prioritize instant gratification over long-term progress, behavioral scientists say. But playing into human nature can lead to success

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New Year's Resolutions Running Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

Improving one's physical or mental health is a broad goal that is common for New Year's resolutions, but experts say that finding enjoyment and specificity in these goals make them easier to achieve.

It's easy to tell yourself that you'll go to the gym more once the new year starts, but unsurprisingly, it's just as easy to abandon such an ambitious goal rather quickly. There's a better way to manage resolutions, and it starts with making your goals smaller and more specific, behavioral scientists say.

About 90% of people abandon their New Year's resolutions within a few weeks, partly because they prioritize instant gratification over long-term progress, experts say. Impulses reemerge and people fail to remain committed to their goals after a short time. 

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The new calendar year makes people believe that a fresh start for positive change is viable, Katy Milkman, a behavioral economist at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Washington Post. "It feels like a chapter break, and the sense of a clean slate gives us an extra motivation to pursue change."

Though the likelihood of following through on New Year's resolutions might seem low based on statistics, behavioral scientists say it's possible to obtain even the lofty ones. Here are several strategies they recommend: 

Break your goal into smaller ones

Instead of attempting to fix a larger problem in a short amount of time, pursue smaller and manageable goals that add up. Come up with a step-by-step plan. Achieving one step allows you to go onto your next step. 

"If we have too big of a goal, we get emotionally distressed when we can't do it, or we fail because we set too big of a goal," said Philip Gable, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Delaware. "So starting small gives us something achievable, and then that gives you a platform to go to the next thing."

It also helps to make these goals as specific and measurable as possible, according to Psychology Today. As an example, instead of simply aiming to go to the gym more often in the new year, plan out when and how often you'll go, and exactly what you'll do in each session. This may help you to find build healthy habits through repetition. 

Find positive reinforcement

Set goals that you will enjoy achieving so that working toward them produces positive emotions rather than negative ones. Sharing a goal with a friend for support and motivation is one possible source of positive reinforcement. Or make strenuous activities, like working out, more palatable by catching up on your favorite TV show while on the treadmill.

Focus on mental health, too

Exercise isn't the only pathway to a higher quality of life; mental health is paramount, as well. According to a poll from the American Psychiatric Association, about 28% of Americans went into 2024 with a mental health focus for their resolutions. Many of them sought to mediate more often, see a therapist, take a social media break or begin a journal.

Don't beat yourself up over shortcomings

Attaining long-term goals can be an arduous process, no matter how much you might break it down. There will be difficulties ahead, and not everything will go according to plan. "If you're setting tough goals, there will always be failure," Milkman told the Post.

It's important to celebrate short successes and not let feelings of guilt or shame weigh you down. "It happens every year — we all have good intentions and then life gets in the way," said Naomi Sadeh, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Delaware. "So it's important to be kind to yourself when you make mistakes or have lapses in your plans."

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