Resolving Well: 5 Tips to Making and Keeping Your New Year’s Resolutions

I made a resolution to start meditating in May 2020, about the same time that approximately 30 million people worldwide made the same resolution. It was the early months of the pandemic and everyone was looking for a way to deal with the stress of lockdown. It’s hard to know how many of those 30 million actually kept up the habit, especially when restrictions loosened and people could meet in groups again. Three and a half years later, though, I’m still meditating. Not every day, and not always for the 40 minutes that I aspire to, but it’s become a sustained habit, a permanent change that I can no longer imagine living without.

About 4 out of 10 Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Such resolutions are a prime example of the “fresh start effect” – a psychological phenomenon in which a date on the calendar gives people a sense of a new beginning and motivates them to make positive change, according to Katy Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Birthdays are another common time to make resolutions, as well as divorces and break-ups. Pandemics, too, apparently.

According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, only 46% of people who made New Year’s resolutions were successful. That means more half dropped their goals during the year, most by March. However, the same study showed that only 4% of people who didn’t make New Year’s resolutions were successful at achieving their goals. So, having goals is a valuable component in positive change, even if we sometimes fall short of our ideal.

I googled tips for keeping New Year’s resolutions, and here are the ones that rang true to me.

01 | Pick resolutions that are important to you, and only you.

A huge part of my motivation for sticking with meditation was actual religious belief. I’ve been a Buddhist my whole life, but started studying Zen – a school of Buddhism with a heavy emphasis on meditation – at the beginning of the pandemic. I became a convert, as it were, and maintaining a commitment to meditation was greatly assisted by a belief that the lessons of Zen dramatically improved my life.

It’s surprising how many people choose resolutions that are more about fitting in, keeping up appearances, or attaching to the goals of others. Don’t do that. Pick a resolution that means something to you personally, with or without the approval or recognition of others.

One more pointer for picking resolutions: avoid those that you’ve tried before and haven’t been able to sustain. If you’ve tried and failed at a goal, it’s probably not sufficiently important to you to be worth your time and effort. Psychologists suggest that trying again something you’ve already failed at will significantly decrease your self-belief and may even lead to a sense of defeatism.

02 | Pick one, maybe two, resolutions.

A common mistake in resolution-setting is having too many and spreading yourself too thin. It’s hard to keep track of 15 goals, and even harder to find time in an already full schedule to develop that many new habits. Be selective and specific.

Here is an exercise that you can undertake to help you figure out what’s most important to you. All you need is a pad of post-it notes, a pen, and a wall.

  1. Write anything you want to accomplish this year on a post-it. Confine each post-it to one goal.
  2. Place each post-it on the wall.
  3. Group together similar goals and rank the group in terms of their importance to your life.
  4. Identify a theme for the top one or two groups, and hone in on one, concrete resolution that captures the essence of each.

A well-known set of guidelines for crafting concrete goals is SMART:

  • Specific 
  • Measurable 
  • Attainable 
  • Relevant 
  • Time-confined
03 | Stay positive.

This is really two pieces of advice in one. 

First, state your resolution in the positive – e.g., I will make dinner at home 4 days a week – rather than in the negative – I will stop eating out so muchResearch indicates that it’s easier to start a behavior than to stop one. So instead of resolving to quit something, resolve to begin doing something else instead. This is called an “approach goal” versus an “avoidance goal.”

Second, remember that big changes are made slowly and with a lot of stumbling along the way. Along my journey to establishing a consistent meditation practice, there were weeks when I didn’t meditate at all, weeks in which I could only sit for 5 minutes at a time, and weeks when meditation was nothing but the endless creation of to-do lists in my head. I shared these struggles with my meditation teacher, and she assured me that this is all perfectly normal and to be expected. By insisting on perfection, I’d only have gotten in my own way and dropped the practice altogether within a few months. Forgive yourself for your missteps and know that hitting 10% of your goal is better than nothing. 

04 | Write down your resolutions and share them with others.

Writing down your goals is a form of intention setting. Sharing them with others holds you accountable. While you don’t want to create a prison sentence for yourself, you do want support. Referring to your written goals on a regular basis reminds you of your reasons for setting them. And sharing with those goals with a supportive community calls upon others to help you keep that intention alive. 

If you want to take goal sharing to the next level, you could organize a mastermind group of people who share a common goal and are looking to encourage and help each other improve. AA works for a reason….

05 | Review your resolutions regularly and celebrate your progress.

It’s so easy to see the long stretch of road in front of you and dismiss the steps you’ve already taken. Regularly take a look back at how far you’ve come and celebrate every win. If you’ve resolved to quit smoking, celebrate the two days you smoked less. If you’ve resolved to exercise more, celebrate the week that you made it to the gym three times even if your goal is five. Acknowledging your successes will help maintain your motivation.

Consider also keeping a resolution journal, where you can write about your successes and struggles. Write down the reasons why you are working toward your goal so that you can refer to them during times when you feel uninspired and unmotivated. Think about what is causing you to falter (such as stress from work or home life) and how to cope effectively.

And adjust your goals if, with time, they start to seem unattainable. My first year of meditating, I could only sit still for 20 minutes at a time. While less than the 40 minutes I’d targeted, it was still 50% of my goal. It was better to see 50% as a success toward my larger goal of a more mindful life than a failure at my, ultimately, unattainable resolution.

Good luck to all of you who aspire to positive change in 2024. My heart is with you and I will be striving right alongside you.

© 2024, Jane Legal PC

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