Here's How to (Actually) Keep Your New Year's Resolutions This Time

Set yourself up to succeed with this expert advice.

New Year's Resolutions On Sticky Notes
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For something as seemingly innocuous as setting goals for yourself, New Year's resolutions can be pretty polarizing—and with good reason. That's because unlike other things you aim to achieve, those labeled "resolutions" come with cultural baggage: specifically, high expectations that some sort of noticeable transformation will take place.

That's why for some, New Year's resolutions are the perfect way to kick off a new year, full of optimism and the belief that it's within their power to break bad habits, adopt healthy ones, and otherwise improve their lives. Meanwhile, others see New Year's resolutions as yet another way to set themselves up for failure and disappointment when they inevitably ditch the goal the second week of January (or maybe that's just me?).

But in reality, a New Year's resolution doesn't need to fit into either of those categories. In fact, neither involves a particularly healthy mindset. Instead of an all-or-nothing approach, there are plenty of other, more effective ways to make and keep your resolutions. Here, the experts say it's absolutely possible to keep your New Year's resolutions—here's how.

01 of 09

Keep resolutions realistic.

It's easier to stick to your resolution if you have a chance of achieving your goal, says Caroline Leaf, Ph.D., cognitive neuroscientist and author of Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess: 5 Simple, Scientifically Proven Steps to Reduce Anxiety, Stress, and Toxic Thinking. "Just like you shouldn't sprint in a marathon, setting a New Year's resolution shouldn't be about trying to change everything you want to change in one go," she explains. "One reason why so many New Year's resolutions fail is that people often set large goals, follow them for a few days or weeks, and begin to get tired when they see there's still so much ahead of them. When we do this, it's like trying to sprint through the 365 days instead of pacing ourselves." Start small and realistically in order to set yourself up for success.

"While this may sound like common sense, make a resolution that overall has a positive impact on your life and is attainable," agrees Julian Lagoy, M.D., a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health. "A lot of people can make resolutions that are so far-fetched and unattainable that it's unreasonable to think they can be achieved in the next year."

02 of 09

Choose your words carefully.

When it comes to making a resolution, the words you use can have an impact on the outcome. "On a neurolinguistic level, word choice can make all the difference between wanting to keep a New Year's resolution, and not being truly invested in the change," says Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Sonoma County, Calif., and author of Joy From Fear. "When you create your resolutions, be sure to use verbiage such as 'I want to' rather than 'I should.' Those who want to see a change are far more likely to maintain resolutions compared to those whose resolutions feel like shame-induced 'shoulds'."

03 of 09

Turn a resolution into a routine.

The key to keeping New Year's resolutions is incorporating them into a routine, according to Dion Metzger, M.D., a psychiatrist practicing in Atlanta. "Most people think saying a resolution or writing it down is enough to turn it into a reality," Dr. Metzger says. "It's not about what the resolution is, but what you plan to do about it." Here's the three-step resolution plan she uses to help her clients turn their resolutions into a lifestyle for the new year:

  • Believe: "The habit doesn't start on the treadmill or with a closet organizer," Dr. Metzger explains, "it starts in your mind." You not only have to believe that you're capable of starting the task, but able to do it consistently.
  • Predict: "Think about what obstacles may derail you on your resolution path," she advises. "Don't have time to go to the gym before work? Get dressed at the gym to save time. Predict your obstacles so you can prepare solutions."
  • Start: "You believe you can, prepared for possible challenges ahead, and now it's time to go," she says. "You don't need company or to wait until Monday. Start now. Release the doubt, ignore the naysayers, and jump all the way in."
04 of 09

Don't be afraid to experiment.

Another reason why it's smart to avoid tackling overwhelming, unrealistic goals is that taking small, practical steps to improve your life gives you a chance to try something new, says Ian Sanders, a creative consultant and author of 365 Ways To Have a Good Day. "Take an experimental approach," he advises. "Try things out, see what works, and you might find that you address your New Year's resolutions faster than you ever imagined."

05 of 09

Develop replacement habits.

If your resolution involves creating healthier habits by doing away with undesirable ones (like doom-scrolling or drinking too many sugary drinks), Manly recommends having a healthy new habit ready to take its place. "To keep New Year's resolutions from going by the wayside, it's important to have a new, positive habit—a replacement behavior—ready to fill the place of an unwanted habit," she says.

For example, if your goal is to reduce your consumption of sugary drinks, have plenty of herbal tea, sparkling water, and other non-sugary drinks on hand for a swap-out. The mentality goes from, "I'm not allowed to have X," to "I get to drink X instead." "As the psyche learns that there's a positive replacement in store when an old habit is released, it becomes more receptive to change," Manly explains. "When the mind sees that a resolution is not a penalty but a real benefit, the resistant monkey mind is far more cooperative."

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06 of 09

Tell people about it.

Whenever setting any kind of goal, there's always the temptation to keep it to yourself—that way, if you don't end up reaching it, no one's any the wiser. But Dr. Lagoy recommends that you tell your close friends or family about your resolutions so they can help hold you accountable. And, while you're at it, you can ask them to join you.

"Feel free to include family and friends in your resolution, such as inviting others to go to the gym with you to add an extra layer of accountability," he adds. In addition to that, Leaf says that you should offer to listen to their goals as well (if they want to share). "This active communication, as well as encouraging one another, will also help make your goals easier to achieve," she adds.

07 of 09

Be specific.

According to Dr. Lagoy, resolutions are more attainable when they're concrete rather than vague. For example, if your goal is about wanting to get more exercise, "I will go to the gym at least once a week" or "I will start working with a personal trainer," are smarter resolutions than "I need to get in shape." Getting in shape may be the motivating drive, but the goal or resolution should include how, specifically, you plan to do so.

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08 of 09

Focus on gratitude.

Another key factor that will help you stick to your resolutions is to come at them with gratitude, Leaf says. (Of course, some years that's easier said than done.) She suggests writing down everything that happened in the last year that brought you joy. Think about what happened over the past year and how you got to where you are now.

"Be grateful for this growth," she says. "Focus on the positive and reframe the negative. This will build up your mental resilience by building healthy neural networks in the brain, which will help you better achieve your goals in the future."

09 of 09

Pace yourself.

As you set your resolution(s) for the coming year, Leaf says to practice slowing down: "This allows you to focus on the present moment and work from there." Manly recommends starting out with a specific, achievable main goal—or macro-goal—and supporting it with a few clear, incremental micro-goals. For example, if your goal is to be able to run 5 miles, start by working your way up to running a half-mile, then 1 mile, etc., rather than attempting to run 5 miles the first day.

"This slow, step-wise approach builds self-efficacy, self-esteem, and patience," Manly says. And, according to Leaf, we need to understand that true change takes time. "Once we accept this," she says, "we need to be patient with ourselves and give ourselves grace if we're not quite going at the pace we imagined."

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