Each January, millions of Americans vow to turn the new year into an opportunity for a fresh start. But after a few short weeks or months, the vast majority slide back into their bad habits
A 2007 British study of more than 3,000 people who made New Year's resolutions found that a disheartening 88 percent failed to keep them.
The fact that we struggle mightily to stick to resolutions should not surprise us, says Dr. Michelle Dossett, a staff physician and researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital's Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine in Boston.
"We wouldn't be making a resolution to change if it was easy to do, and something we had already succeeded at," she says.
However, it's important not to let those struggles overwhelm our determination to change. Beating ourselves up when we stumble only reinforces the negative feelings that keep us locked in bad habits.
Instead, take a more proactive – and positive – approach to failure, Dossett says.
"Each fall is an opportunity to learn valuable information that can help us increase our likelihood of success the next time around," she says.
Dossett says following three simple guidelines can increase the odds of success when making resolutions.
1. Make sure your goals are specific
Dossett says it is common for people making New Year's resolutions to set goals that are too vague.
For example, simply saying you want to be more fit "doesn't help you figure out how you will get to that place," she says.
Instead, you need a roadmap to get there. If your fitness plan involves joining the gym, which exercises will you do when you get there? What is your goal, and how will you measure your progress toward it?
One way to fight fuzzy goal-setting is to use the SMART system advocated by author and corporate consultant Beverly Flaxington. Writing in Psychology Today, she urges people to make resolutions that are:
2. Plan changes that are realistic and sustainable
As Flaxington indicates, unrealistic ambitions are another major contributor to failed resolutions.
Dossett says creating unreasonable resolutions – such as wanting to lose 30 pounds in 30 days – is counterproductive. In addition, it's important to set goals that are sustainable over the long haul.
"Going on a crash diet or setting unrealistic expectations for exercise will be difficult to keep up after the first week or two," Dossett says.
3. Create a plan for dealing with negative feelings
No matter how motivated you are to reach a goal, obstacles will arise. Dossett says one of the biggest reasons people fail when setting resolutions is because they ignore the underlying issue that supports their bad habits and behaviors.
In many cases, the source of such troubles is simple everyday stress, she says.
"New Year's resolutions usually don't address the underlying stressors that contribute to the behaviors that we're trying to change," she says.
Dossett urges you to reflect on how you typically respond to stress. Then, learn tools and techniques that can help you respond to such pressures in a more positive and productive way.
For example, mind-body techniques -- such as meditation, yoga and tai chi -- can help you adapt to stressful circumstances in a more productive way than "simply reacting by reaching for that piece of candy, or deciding to sit in front of the TV," Dossett says.
Once you have calmed yourself, get rid of any remaining tension or anxiety through a more productive activity, such as going to the gym.
Although sticking with resolutions can be challenging, throwing in the towel should not be an option, Dossett says.
"Quitting means we'll never reach the goal," she says.
By contrast, learning from your failures and trying again and again "helps us to develop persistence and opens up the possibility for success," she says.