If the idea of making New Year’s resolutions scares you, give up the tradition. Science suggests that most of the people who make resolutions each year don’t stick to them, and mental health experts say that other strategies for adopting healthier habits work better.
A frequently cited study published in 1989 in the Drug Abuse Journal, the next 200 people found that 77 percent of people held their resolutions after a week, 43 percent held them for three months, and 19 percent held them for two years, with many citing a lack of willpower.
Another study published in March 2002 in Journal of Clinical Psychology, found that only 46 percent of resolvers successfully adhered to their resolutions six months into the New Year.
The problem is, we often set unrealistic goals, explains Seth Gillihan, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Haverford, Pennsylvania and co-author of A mindful year: 365 ways to find connection and the sacred in everyday life. “We’re trying to make a really big change and we’re trying to do it all at once.”
For example, believing that we can suddenly completely change our eating habits on January 1st – if we have eaten what we wanted by the day before – is likely a goal that will fail, says Dr. Gillihan.
The social pressures surrounding New Year’s resolutions don’t help either, says Camilla Nonterah, PhD, assistant professor of health psychology at the University of Richmond who studies mental health in underserved and minority groups.
You might not want to make a change for all the right reasons, says Dr. Nonterah. “It can just have this feeling of oh that’s something I should be doing.”
But the good news is, setting a goal for healthier behavior and sticking to it is possible, both Nonterah and Gillihan agree. To increase your chances of success in adopting healthier habits, take small steps instead of big jumps and gestures, and be strategic with each of these steps.
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9 better ways to change your behavior
Instead of making New Year’s resolutions, follow this advice to help you maintain healthy habits.
1. If you want to change something, choose the right time for you
There’s nothing magical about January 1st that makes it easier to achieve goals than any other time of the year, says Gillihan. For example, if you prefer to exercise outside when it is warmer, plan for the new running routine in the spring. Do what makes sense to you.
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2. Find out about your goals
Start with the SMART goal setting framework, initially developed as a business success strategy, according to a September 2017 in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. The framework suggests that goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based. The point is, if you define it in certain terms, according to the paper, you are more likely to achieve a goal.
So instead of “becoming a runner” for example, promise to run twice a week. The goal should also be realistic to achieve – for example, run 3 miles before a marathon – and have a definite end date or milestone that you can achieve, such as the calendar.
3. Change your environment to prepare for success
Don’t rely solely on motivation and willpower to achieve your goals. Prepare for success by changing your environment to encourage healthy behavior, says Gillihan.
That can mean buying more fruits and vegetables at the grocery store or charging your phone out of range at night so that you’re not tempted to pick up the device and scroll down to its doom. Whatever the goal, make sure your surroundings make it as easy as possible to achieve, explains Gillihan. “You have to change the system.”
4. Surround yourself with supporters
Gather your personal cheerleading squad and have them ready, says Nonterah. If your goal is to eat healthier foods, ask a friend or family member to shop with you as a reminder to make more nutritious shopping choices, she says. Or invite a friend to cook a healthy meal with you.
Other members of your support team could be your doctor, therapist, personal trainer, exercise partner, or peer support group (virtual or in person).
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5. Find the S.Abboteurs
If certain people are uncomfortable with your goals or the behavior changes you’re trying to make – especially if it’s a habit they still enjoy – realize this and be ready to stick with your goals even as they try To convince you to do something else.
Remember, you don’t have to defend or even explain your personal choices, says Gillihan. Instead, be firm in your decisions from the start. He suggests letting people know what they need as simply as possible. For example, if you want to drink less, you can just say, “No thanks, I’m not drinking tonight.” You don’t have to explain yourself, adds Gillihan. “You are not responsible for removing other people’s discomfort.”
Specificity can help you clearly understand your goals and identify steps you may need to take to get there. But even a less rigid approach can be strategic at other times, says Gillihan. In order to spend less time on his phone, Gillihan previously experimented with removing apps from his phone for a short time, according to Gillihan.
If you look at your goal as an experiment, you can learn from it, he says. Try committing to new behavior for a month instead of the rest of the time, he suggests. That way, there is an opportunity to shift the goal based on what works and what doesn’t.
7. Automate notifications to stay up to date
Again, don’t rely on motivation and willpower alone. Make automated reminders like phone warnings or alarms to alert you to drink more water or to take a break from sitting, and visual cues – post-it notes on your mirror to remind you not to skip the gym, for example It’s easier to stick with a routine change, says Nonterah. Tracking progress through an app or with pen and paper can also help you keep up.
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8th. Accept obstacles that are beyond your control
Worrying about what can’t be changed usually only increases your anxiety and discourages you, says Nonterah. For example, if you can’t afford a personal trainer, there is nothing you can do about it. Instead, she says, focus on, “What can I do with what I have?” Be realistic about what you can achieve.
9. Keep trying, even after small mistakes and missteps
Changes in behavior are difficult, says Nonterah. So don’t get discouraged if you fail to achieve your goal the first few times. Just keep trying the strategies outlined above.
“If you do something 80 percent of the time, that’s a lot better than not doing it at all,” adds Gillihan.