How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions (for Real) This Year
Have you vowed to get fitter this year, or to snack less and work out more? These tips will help you make 2021 the year you set goals—and achieve them.
Raise your hand if this story sounds familiar: You roll into New Year’s Eve vowing to make the upcoming year the one when you get fitter, stronger and healthier. Sure, you made the same resolution last year and the year before that and the year before that, but this year is going to be different.
On January 1, you toss on your running shoes and hit the pavement or slip into your sleek new leggings and head to yoga class. You’re ready and you’re excited. Jump cut to mid-February and you’re back on your couch, bingeing on chips, old sitcom episodes and a bitter cocktail of defeat and self-recrimination.
But look around—you’re far from alone. About one-third of Americans responding to a survey last year were planning to make New Year’s resolutions. The most common: Exercise more, followed by eat better and lose weight. While one in three people making those resolutions was very confident of sticking to them, in truth, less than one in 10 managed to commit to the previous year’s promises.
“People set unrealistic goals and don’t make a plan for achieving them,” says Courtney Beard, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA, explaining why so many New Year’s resolutions fizzle out. There are steps you can take to break the cycle, though. These tips can help you make 2021—when good health and fitness is more important than ever—the year you stick to your plan.
Big, vague resolutions can overwhelm, setting you up to fail. It’s better to break them into smaller goals—perhaps one per week—that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based (aka SMART). “If my resolution is to move more during the day, my first goal might be, ‘I am going to set a timer for each hour from 9 to 5 and walk a lap around the house,’” says Beard. “Or if my resolution is to exercise regularly, my first SMART goal might be ‘This week, I am going to walk around my neighborhood for 10 minutes Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 7 A.M.’”
Frame your goals positively (focus on what you will do instead of what you won’t) and make sure you want to achieve them, rather than feeling like you should, says Steven J. Danish, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. “If it’s important to you, it’s more likely to be achieved,” he explains.
Goals should also emphasize the process, not the results. “The only thing you can control is what you actually do,” says Kate F. Hays, Ph.D., a Toronto-based psychologist.
Structure the steps you’ll take toward achieving your resolution like a ladder, says Danish, with the ultimate goal at the top. The first step should be the easiest to achieve, guaranteeing you early, motivation-boosting success. “Success breeds success,” he notes. Beard agrees. “You can always go above and beyond your goal, but starting small is key,” she adds.
Consider how your approach to reaching your health and fitness goals fits into your lifestyle, advises Christina Frederick, Ph.D., a professor in the department of human factors and behavioral neurobiology at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, FL. “Things have to be convenient,” she says. A long drive to a gym across town may discourage you, for instance, and purchasing a treadmill only works if you don’t mind the monotony of indoor running.
Meanwhile, make your fitness goals as easy as possible with steps like setting out workout clothes and shoes the night before you plan to exercise. “Removing any decision or barrier increases the chances of success,” says Beard.
Hays advocates a similar strategy. “Figure out, when I’m arguing with myself about ‘Am I going to exercise or not?’ what makes it inevitable?” she says. “For me, going for a run is inevitable once I’m tying my shoelaces. A friend said, ‘It’s when I put on my gym clothes.’ Finding that turning point is useful.”
Track Your Progress
Schedule weekly check-ins with yourself to review your steps toward your goal. (Add a friend to the process if it helps keep you accountable.) “Find out why something did or didn’t work and adjust your next steps accordingly,” says Beard. “Most importantly, use these weekly check-ins to remember the ultimate ‘why’ that underlies your resolution.”
Folding in something inherently rewarding—listening to good music, taking your run to a beautiful new trail—can set you up for success, Beard says. Material rewards are good, too—a new pair of running shoes to celebrate a mileage goal, for instance—but satisfaction from progress itself may be the best reward. “If you feel good about yourself and have more energy, those internal rewards sustain your activity and participation,” says Frederick.
Take setbacks as an opportunity to reassess. “If you fail to meet a goal, make a note and continue. Don’t give up,” says Frederick. “Don’t just chuck it out the window.” Change is hard and progress can be bumpy. By anticipating setbacks, you’ll be better able to adjust when they occur.
“You will not be perfect. You will ‘mess up.’ You will face unexpected obstacles. Roll with those challenges,” says Beard. “Do your best to get back on track or revise your plan if the original goal was too ambitious.” Whatever you do, don’t view setbacks as failure. And don’t think January 1 is the only day you can start to work toward your goals. Says Danish: “Start when you are ready to start.”