Realistic Tips to Make Your New Year’s Resolutions Stick

by | Read time: 5 minutes

“New year, new you.” Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? And surely you can imagine it: A fitter, healthier, more productive, organized and well-balanced you, gliding into spring with her New Year’s resolutions not just met but also brilliantly exceeded. Who wouldn’t want to hop on the bandwagon of becoming their best self yet?

Fitness and Diet Tools Lined Up on Wooden Table to Help With New Year's Resolutions |

Thank ancient Babylonians for the inspiration. Over 4,000 years ago, the people of Mesopotamia—the first population to hold celebrations in honor of the new year—made vows to their gods at the onset of the season. Fast forward to Julius Caesar’s time, in which January 1st marked the start of improved conduct for the coming year. Today that translates into nearly half of all Americans making resolutions before the Christmas tree has been carted away—primarily intentions in the arena of self-improvement.

But despite our many years of practice, we somehow still fail at sticking to our resolutions: whether it’s cutting down on sugar or cutting out alcohol, research shows that only eight percent of people achieve the aims they set at the beginning of the year. Why?

Let’s take a look at why New Year’s resolutions flop before February 1st—and the steps you can take to ensure yours don’t.

Our expectations are often too high

Whether it’s losing twenty pounds by March 1st or paying off your credit card debt by April 15th (thanks, one-day holiday sales!), chances are you’ve set a pretty high bar for yourself. And while dreaming big can certainly be exhilarating, it can also be exhausting—and discouraging.

Peter Herman—a Psychology professor at the University of Toronto—identifies this trend as the “false hope syndrome.” That is, “people fail because the resolutions they make are unrealistic. They’re overly ambitious in that they try to accomplish more than they realistically can.” They also, he points out, “try to accomplish more things more quickly than is realistically possible” while underestimating “the difficulty of the task.” In turn, we get dismayed and adopt a why try attitude that sets us up for heartache and failure.

The solution? Setting specific, quantifiable, reachable goals. Rather than eschewing desserts for eternity, for example, make goal setting realistic—that you’ll save sweets for one night a week and will choose wholesome treats at that. (One to try: strawberries dipped in brain-boosting dark chocolate and crushed pistachios.) Determined to run a 5K this summer? Increase your miles by 10% each week. In short, the vaguer and more unfeasible the aim, the more challenging it is to feel a sense of accomplishment and remain enthusiastic.

We anticipate too much too soon

Losing weight, reducing debt, organizing your home from basement to attic—these resolutions are admirable, but they also require real effort and significant time. Indeed, “change doesn’t happen overnight” has become an adage for a reason: lasting alterations in our lives are an accumulation of small tweaks that we make on a moment-by-moment basis.

The question to ask yourself, then, is not how can I be ten pounds lighter by the end of the month? but what can I do, right now, to work towards my ultimate goal of being fitter and healthier? Grabbing an apple or healthy snack instead of reaching for chips, doing crunches during commercial breaks, signing up for a weekend Pilates class in advance—the choice is entirely up to you, but the point is to stay in the moment and focus on what you can do, this minute, to meet your objective. Immediate results may not be seen, but there’s pride to be had in moving towards them and minor accomplishments to celebrate along the way. (Hello, better-fitting clothes!)

We have accountability only with ourselves

It’s common for motivation to sag after the pink cloud (aka January 15th) passes. Sure, you pledged to yourself that you would shun small expenditures until Easter, but what harm is that latte/pedicure/new handbag going to do in the long run?

Rather than undo your hard work, consider selecting an accountability to keep you working towards your resolutions instead—whether that is indeed giving up unnecessary expenses, or is focused on a larger goal like quitting smoking or curbing your carb intake. Accountability partners provide support and motivation, increase your sense of responsibility and act as a sounding board.

Or, take it from Dr. Tim Church, a Professor of Preventative Medicine at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge: “A significant predictor of whether people are going to stay on an exercise program is if they have a friend (either an individual or group) who works out with them. Getting people connected to each other is critical.” So rally your best friend into becoming your racquetball partner, corral your colleagues into Happy Hour park walks (as opposed to Happy Hour bar hops) or join a local or online community that’ll keep your goals in check. Best part yet? You might help them triumph too.

We don’t choose the right resolutions

Scribbling down “spend more time with family and friends” as the clock swings towards midnight doesn’t necessarily translate into having richer, more fulfilling relationships if you don’t have a plan in place—or if your family lives a plane-ride away. And while “run every day” is certainly noble, if you don’t love hitting the pavement, treadmill, or trails, then you’re bound to lose heart and experience some self-disappointment.

Instead, the key to honoring your resolutions is found in determining goals that work with your lifestyle, personality and personal preferences. Can’t stand the idea of lacing up your sneaks at sunrise but love moving your body to music? Make a promise to yourself to try two new dance classes per month. Adore your sister but can’t work weekly dinners into your schedule? Start calling her (hands-free, of course) on your commute.

Overhauls that don’t align with who you really are rarely pan out—and may lead to you, well, eating that whole pan of cookies. And who said resolutions had to be all slog? Make them enjoyable and your excitement for your “new you” will persist not just throughout the year, but always.