In theory, New Year’s resolutions are a good thing — it’s all about improving something we don’t like about ourselves, right?
Except that our best intentions in January don’t tend to survive the month. But instead of feeling like failures, maybe we should focus on how we make those resolutions so that they are easier to keep.
The two most common New Year’s resolutions involve health and financial goals. “Content of the resolution doesn’t matter as much as how the resolution is set,” says Melissa Burkley, an associate professor of social psychology at Oklahoma State University. “You can approach a health goal in a way that guarantees failure, or approach it in a way that will guarantee success.”
Here are a few resolution pitfalls to avoid:
People tend to choose a resolution like, “I am going to lose weight” or “I am going to write a novel.” But Burkley says these are too vague to be realistic. “The key to resolving this is being specific,” she says. So instead of vowing to simply lose weight, make your goal to lose 1 lb. a month. Or instead of writing a novel, try to write 1,000 words a week. “Making your resolution more concrete allows you to better monitor it. If you fall behind, you know,” she says.
Lack of accountability
When a goal is too abstract, it can also be hard to be accountable for meeting it. “Tell other people, post your goal and progress to Facebook, tweet it. We can lie to ourselves, but we can’t lie to others,” says Burkley. Some apps, like MapMyRun and Weight Watchers Mobile, allow you to track progress for activities like fitness and eating. Some will even send you reminders to keep you on track, which can be helpful when your motivation starts to flag.
Only setting goals on New Year’s Eve
“I think setting goals is great and we should do it more often. Research shows setting goals can make people happier and more satisfied,” says Burkley. Setting such targets just once a year, however, can be self-defeating. So set smaller goals more frequently during the year instead of singular, lofty ones. Pick a goal for each month. Even if you fail, you can start over the next month, and not feel like the whole year is lost if you drop the ball.
Forgetting that you can’t control everything
Many people make their New Year’s resolution to get a raise at work. While that’s a positive goal, it requires the compliance of other people and involves other factors, such as a company’s finances and the state of the financial markets, that may be entirely out of your control. “There’s a lot of research on the importance of autonomy in goals. You need to focus on what you can control and acknowledge what you can’t,” says Burkley. “There are some things you can control, but ultimately, [a raise is] within someone else’s hands.”
If you can’t necessarily control the ultimate outcome, try other outcomes. If you’re hoping for a raise, you can continue to be efficient and effective at work, but focus on increasing your productivity instead of earning more. Down the line, that might just get you that raise.
Choosing hard goals over the holidays like quitting smoking
“Things that involve chemical dependence are very difficult,” says Burkley. “Recognize that it can’t be done with sheer willpower. New Year’s Eve may not be the best time to set the goal because of all the stress. Starting off in a vulnerable position could harm you later on. When it comes to things like this, you need support from family and doctors.”
Relying on willpower
The biggest misconception about resolutions is that meeting them is all about willpower. “Your ability to exert self-control is limited, so you fatigue very quickly. Sometimes just after 15 minutes. Realize when you’re reaching for a very difficult goal, you’re wearing out the self-control muscle,” says Burkley. And be more realistic about what’s possible and what’s not. There’s nothing wrong with giving yourself a challenge, but making a resolution that is too difficult to meet will only lead to breaking it.