With a little forethought, planning, and, yes, organization, you can make and keep the resolutions that are most important to you
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Credit: James Baigrie

Another new year, another chance to turn over another new leaf: Lose a bit of weight, exercise more, eat better, be nicer.

But even though many of us start the year with great motivation to change habits or cultivate new ones, that resolve tends to fade quickly. According to researchers, only a small percentage of the people who make resolutions in January end the year meeting their goals.

With a little forethought, planning, and, yes, organization, though, you can make and keep the resolutions that are most important to you. Psychologists have found that successful resolution keepers tend to be truly committed to their goals ― meaning, they’re ready for some discomfort and sacrifice. They also use some tricks: they break their goals into steps, remove temptations (no more Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer), and give themselves small rewards (a new bag, say, after a certain saving goal is achieved).

Here's a four-step plan to help set you on the right course:

Step 1: Prioritize Your Goals

On a piece of paper, write the three to five goals you’d like to achieve this year, then rank them in order of importance. You might find, after some thought, that you’d rather lose some of your debt than that extra 15 pounds. This step gives you a chance to decide what’s most important to you.

It might look like this:

Goal 1. Pay off credit card debt
Goal 2. Lose 15 pounds
Goal 3. Go to the gym three times a week
Goal 4. Learn Spanish

Step 2: Ruthlessly Evaluate Your Goals

Give your resolutions a reality check. Ask yourself how committed you are to each goal on your list. Are you ready for the sacrifices they might require? Are they truly doable? Can you wipe out your $5,000 credit card balance this year if you also need to buy a new car? Can you really lose 15 pounds? Would 10 be more realistic?

Step 3: Winnow Your List

Take the survivors from Step 1 and Step 2 and rewrite them. Make each goal very specific. If you ultimately decide that reducing your debt is your number one priority, you might write "cut credit card debt in half," rather than "pay off credit card debt." If you really do want to learn Spanish, rephrase your objective: "Learn to hold a basic conversation in Spanish by the end of ’07."

Step 4: Create a Plan

Remember that change is a process, not an event. Take your carefully worded goals and come up with concrete steps that will help you achieve each of them.

Next, create a simple chart like the one below and place it someplace visible (over your desk, on your bathroom mirror, on the refrigerator) or carry it around in your bag and refer to it frequently.

Goal 1: Reduce debt
Action 1: Set up an automatic deduction from your checking account each month and add your saved money to your monthly debt payment.
Action 2: Tell your friends you’re trying to save money.
Action 3: Avoid clothes shopping for six months.
Reward: One new handbag

Goal 2: Learn basic Spanish
Action 1: Order a language CD; look into podcasts
Action 2: Sign up for a class or hire a tutor
Action 3: Watch Spanish language television for 30 minutes, three times a week
Reward: A night out at a Spanish restaurant