If you’re one of the millions of people who’s made a New Year’s resolution this year, you might also be one of the millions who are struggling to keep it. Studies show that only 36% of resolution-makers keep them for as long as a month, and just 9% feel they were ultimately successful in changing their behavior.
The good news? People who keep their resolution for more than a month are more likely to maintain their resolution and ultimately achieve success.
In this article, we offer 9 tips and best practices that will help you ensure you’ve set the right goals for you, adjust your existing goals if you’re not making progress, and keep your motivation in the months ahead.
Why New Year’s Resolutions Are So Hard to Keep
New Year’s resolutions are often hard to keep for the same reasons that are true for any goal. People give themselves unrealistic targets or struggle to plan properly. But New Year’s resolutions have a couple of nuances that make them particularly difficult.
People see the New Year as a time to start over, and so they decide to make grand, sweeping changes in their lives. And of course, a big change is usually more challenging than a less adventurous goal. The New Year is also a time people try to tackle particularly onerous challenges, like exercising more, losing weight, or quitting bad habits.
At the same time, there’s a social context to New Year’s resolutions that makes them particularly hard to keep. Some of us set New Year’s resolutions not because we really want to change, but because we feel obligated to set a goal for ourselves. Others of us get caught up with our friends and let them set goals for us as they make their own resolutions.
But studies show that by setting goals we really care about, we give ourselves a better chance at success. Which brings us to our first tip: Make a resolution that aligns with your values and needs.
Step 1: Make a Resolution That Aligns with Your Values and Needs
How did you spend your time last year? Were there things you care about, that you wish you’d been better able to do? Maybe a hobby or sport you wish you were better at. Relationships you wish you’d focused more time on? Something in your career development that you feel is holding you back?
Often, these sticking points are a great place to find a New Year’s resolution you can keep, and can help you reframe your existing goals so they feel more relevant and imperative.
- Someone who feels comfortable with their weight, but felt out of breath last year every time they played with their kids, shouldn’t get caught up if their friends all make a pact to lose weight. Instead, they might set the goal of being fit enough to be comfortable doing the things they enjoy.
- Someone who wants to advance in their career, but was passed over last year when a promotion was available, might look for coursework they can take or certifications they can earn. They might research opportunities in their industry and create a plan on making themselves more of an expert in their field or more valuable in their professional role.
- Improving mental health was one of the more common New Year’s resolutions of 2023 — but what that means, and how to achieve it, is a very personal topic. While some people thrive under pressure, others need a calm environment to focus in. When setting goals, it’s important to know yourself and what works for you, and to work for goals that set you up for success.
Step 2: Make a SMART Roadmap
After you’ve chosen a goal that aligns with your values and needs, it’s time to take pen to paper and create the roadmap of what achieving your goal will look like. One way to do that is by setting a goal that is SMART:
- Specific. Your plan should clearly state your end result, as well as the steps you’ll have to take to get there. Setting concrete goals like “exercise for 30 minutes 3 days a week” helps goal-setters stay focused and makes them more likely to succeed than setting vague goals like “be fitter by the end of the year.”
- Measurable. For both your overall goal and the milestones in your plan, make sure you can quantify your progress and have a way to measure it. To help make your goals measurable, ask yourself questions like “How much…?”, “How many…?”, “How long…?” You also need to identify what your end result looks like, and be specific about how you will reach it.
- Achievable. As you create your milestones and overall goal, consider all the resources you’ll need, including expenses. Research other people who have already achieved your goal, and see if they’ve created a roadmap to inspire yours. Be sure that your overall goal is realistic. If you aren’t already a computer programmer, setting the goal of “Becoming one of Google’s top coders by the end of the year” might be out of reach. Once you’re sure your overall goal is achievable, ask yourself if the milestones in your goal are things inside your sphere of control. If your roadmap, for example, requires other people to commit to something they may not want to do, then you might need to reconsider your path.
- Relevant. This was covered in Step 1, but as you create your roadmap it’s worth double-checking that both your overall goal and all of its milestones feel relevant to you and align with your values. For example, someone who wants to reduce their carbon footprint may find composting food waste unappealing. It’s okay for them to re-evaluate this part of their plan and make adjustments to other parts of their roadmap to accommodate that preference.
- Timely. As you create a roadmap, for each milestone as well as for your larger goal, set realistic time frames so you can check in on your overall progress. An amateur cyclist wanting to train for their first Century Ride might research how many miles they can add to their route each week, and how long they’ll need to train to ride 100 miles comfortably.
Step 3: Plan for Setbacks
Once you have a roadmap in place, ask yourself what it will look like when you have setbacks. Plan for them, and also plan for how you will return to your roadmap.
What returning to your roadmap looks like will depend on your goal and your setback. But the first thing to do in every case is to remind yourself that your goal isn’t to become a perfectionist. Setbacks are okay, as long as you stick to your plan and return to your roadmap.
Some common setbacks to expect, for some of the most common resolutions, include:
- Injuries. One of the most common New Year’s resolutions is to exercise more, which means increasing the risk of injuries. A roadmap for this might include preventive care — not doing too much too quickly — as well as being diligent about rehabilitation and consulting a physical therapist on how to get back on track with your goals.
- Celebrations. If your goal is to lose weight or eat more healthfully, including celebrations like Thanksgiving, St. Patrick’s Day, and sporting events in your roadmap as potential setbacks will allow you to keep your goals while still enjoying time with friends and family. As you prepare for the holidays, and when they’ve passed, consider increasing the protein, healthy fats, and fiber in your diet, or exercising more.
- Stress. Whether your goal is to get more sleep, quit smoking, or practice mindfulness, stress can create major setbacks. Dealing with stress is highly personal, but some common tactics include exercise and diet, meditation, spending time with friends and family, and therapy.
- Accidents. Saving money and cutting costs are two of the most-cited New Year’s resolutions, and both can be affected by car accidents, medical expenses, or home repairs. If an accident strikes, look at your plan and ask yourself if you can still meet your ultimate goal by saving more each week, if you need to push your target date back, or maybe find new income streams.
Step 4: Create a Baseline to Help Track Your Progress
As part of your roadmap, you hopefully created a goal with milestones that are both quantifiable and measurable. This is a key part of successful goal setting!
Especially as you first begin working toward your resolution, you’ll want to track your progress. If possible, you may even want to look back at your old habits to understand what your starting point is. If you can’t do that, you might want to take some time to develop some starting numbers so you can better track your progress.
Dieting — one of the most common resolutions — often includes a calorie deficit. To know what a realistic deficit looks like for you, you’d first need to know how many calories you take in and spend on an average day. This means recording your diet and activity in the earliest stages of working toward your goal, so you know exactly what to work on.
This applies to more than just diets. A student with a goal of studying more or improving their grades might want to first identify how much time they currently spend studying and what their worst distractions are. Armed with that knowledge, they could develop a plan that allows them to spend more time studying at a higher quality.
Whether your goal is to lose weight and get in shape, write a certain number of words per week, get more sleep, or spend more time focusing on your hobbies, there’s probably an app that can help. Apps like MapMyFitness from Under Armour can help track calories and log exercises. Many word-processing apps, such as Scrivener, can keep track of the number of words a person writes and disable other apps that might distract the user while they work.
Step 5: Prepare Yourself Mentally
Mental preparation is key to performance, and there are a few techniques that can help anyone from a student giving a class speech to a professional athlete.
First, focus on your goals and on the solutions to any problems. Don’t get overwhelmed if the goal seems too hard, and don’t get into cycles of repetitive self-talk. Instead, focus on what you can do in the moment to move toward your goal. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And to continue that journey, you only need the strength to take the next step!
Another technique that can help fight negative self-talk is visualization. Visualization techniques can help you gain confidence, increase your motivation, and stay focused. Most visualization techniques involve engaging as many of the senses as possible, while also working to create the emotional response you think you might feel when achieving success.
By focusing on the positive outcomes of your goal and the precise steps you need to take to achieve it, you can practice even the most stressful situations or complicated physical movements.
Finally, while you want to learn from your mistakes, you don’t want to dwell on them. One reason many people give up on their New Year’s resolution is because they make themselves the same promises year after year. They encounter the same roadblocks and give up for the same reasons.
If you do choose to take on a goal that you’ve failed at in the past, focus on the process and your smaller goals. Take it one step at a time, and work incrementally toward your goal.
Step 6: Focus on One Goal at a Time
As you created your roadmap you’ll have prioritized your milestones. You may have prioritized things by what has to happen first — an aspiring writer would need to create a plot and characters before they could write a book. Or you may have prioritized based on importance — someone with the goal of saving money might cut out their largest discretionary expenses first.
Either way, you’ll have a list of steps to complete — and you’ll want to resist the temptation to do them all at once. Stick to your roadmap and tackle your milestones in order. This has several benefits and avoids some of the roadblocks that come with trying to split your attention too many ways at once.
Methodically approaching each milestone can let you see how much you’ve already accomplished toward your larger goal — and can also be a tool for reminding yourself how much work you have yet to do. Depending on your personality and where you are at on your roadmap, both of these views can be motivational.
At the same time, research published in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that focusing on multiple goals can be overwhelming. It can cause people to focus too much on how hard their goals are to achieve, cause them to be distracted more easily, and ultimately lead to them giving up.
Focusing on each step of your roadmap keeps your priorities in order, helps you remember the reason for setting your goal in the first place, and gives you time to develop the habits you need to ultimately be successful.
Step 7: Find a Partner or Join a Group
Finding a partner as you work toward your goal can be motivational. You might not roll out of bed and get to the gym for your own sake. But if someone you care about is counting on you, hitting snooze is harder to excuse.
The right partner can also help people with goals that involve trying new things and getting out of their comfort zone. Walking into a new situation can be intimidating for anyone, but sharing in a new experience with someone can help you form positive associations with the new experiences, and helps reframe the anxiety as excitement.
You should also consider talking to your family and friends about your new goals and asking for their support. If you want to stop smoking, your closest friends might stop smoking in front of you (or at least give you a hard time if you fall off the wagon!). If you want to take college courses, your family might take on more of the housework, or watch your children, to help.
Joining groups and clubs is another great goal-achieving hack. Self-control is contagious. Imitating the people around you is both a shortcut to learning complex tasks and a way to create social bonds. You can exploit your own psychology by putting yourself into situations where you’ll be surrounded by people doing the things you want to do.
If you’ve struggled in the past to stick to a workout regimen, then joining a group spin class, for example, might be the change you need. You’ll surround yourself with people who already have the self-control you might need to succeed, and can form friendships or at least acquaintances by sharing the experience of working out together.
Just remember: Other people’s behavior is outside of your sphere of control. As much as you might want your best friend or spouse to share your journey, they may not have the same goals. So try not to rely on them too much for your personal motivation, and be ready to keep to your plan even if they can’t stick to theirs.
Step 8: Give Yourself Time to Form New Habits
As you work toward your goals, remember: Building the habit that will lead to success is usually more important than achieving the goal quickly. For many resolutions, treating each milestone as a micro-habit needing to be learned can help the process feel less daunting and success feel more achievable.
Popular culture tells us that it takes just 21 or 66 days to form a new habit (depending on whose TikTok you’re listening to). But the reality can be very different. How long it takes to form new habits depends on the person and what the person is trying to learn. As you develop your SMART roadmap and set a timetable for each milestone, allow enough time to not only complete it, but to also develop it as a habit.
This will also help ensure that you focus on one goal at a time (Step 6).
Someone who wants to start exercising after work might begin by packing their kit the night before. Once they develop that as a micro-habit, they might change their drive home to include a swing past the gym. As that becomes a habit, they might go into the gym and change, but only spend a few minutes exercising. And then, the time they spend in the gym can grow naturally from there.
Another good practice is to frame your goal as building a new habit, as opposed to breaking an old one. For people working to break the habit of smoking, for example, nicotine gum and inhalers can work better than patches because the gums and inhalers become a replacement behavior. This, in effect, helps the person develop a new habit that replaces the old.
A simple goal of drinking fewer sweetened drinks could instead be framed as a goal to drink more water. Instead of reaching for a can of soda or adding sugar to your tea, you could fill your cup from the tap or order water with your appetizers.
This simple reframing of your resolution — from stopping a bad habit to starting a new one — can be a powerful tool in achieving your goal.
Step 9: Allow Yourself Compassion, and Be Patient!
Odds are, whatever your New Year’s resolution is, there will be times when you break it. When that happens, one of the best things you can do is to be kind to yourself. Instead of focusing on achieving your goal perfectly, recognize that setbacks are a part of the process.
Remember — when you first made your roadmap, you allowed for imperfections! Take some time to appreciate why this setback happened. Remind yourself why you set this goal for yourself and how it aligns with your values and needs. And then sit down with your roadmap and see what it will take for you to get back on track.
Like the habits you’re trying to learn to achieve your goal, patience is also a learned behavior! And in achieving goals, patience has a number of benefits.
Learning to be more patient also means learning to regulate your emotions. Not just the acute symptom of impatience but also more chronic emotions like stress. And as you learn to show yourself more patience, you’ll also learn to apply that skill to the people around you. This can help you mentor or collaborate with others.
Increasing your emotional intelligence in this way, and learning to better regulatethese emotions, you’ll also develop more resiliency and persistence — two key measures of the ability to achieve challenging goals. You’ll be better able to frame setbacks as what they are: Temporary stops on the path to achieving whatever goals you’ve set yourself!
The Bottom Line
One of the reasons New Year’s resolutions are so hard is because we see the new year as a time for new beginnings. To signify that new beginning, we set ourselves lofty goals that are hard to achieve.
Many people fail because they set challenging goals without creating a roadmap for success. By following our 9-step method, you can create a solid roadmap to meet your New Year’s resolution, can adjust your existing goals to help yourself set and meet realistic milestones, and will create a foundation for achieving your other goals in life.