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New Year, New Habits: 5 Ways to Make Habits Last

Set realistic goals, develop an action plan and other ways to make your New Year’s resolutions stick.

Asia Pietrzyk's illustration of a woman climbing stars

Christine made two resolutions for the new year: to read the Bible more often and to lose 20 pounds by Valentine’s Day. She hit the ground running, whipping through two Bible chapters on January 1 and joining a gym the next day. For three weeks, working out and reading Scripture were part of her daily routine. Then life got in the way: Her family caught Covid, and she had a big work project. When February 14 rolled around, she had lost only one pound and hadn’t touched her Bible in weeks. So much for a new year with new habits…

Christine is not alone. Researchers suggest about 40 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions—losing weight tops the list—but by year’s end, less than 40 percent have achieved their goals. Should you even bother making resolutions?

“Yes!” says John C. Norcross, Ph.D., author of Changeology and an expert on the science of self-change. “Making a New Year’s resolution is a valuable opportunity for annual reflection. It’s like Lent. These moments remind us to recommit to one’s best self.” And there’s no better time to make a change. Research shows that people who have New Year’s resolutions are 10 times more likely to change than those who attempt transformation at other times of year. Here’s how to make your resolutions stick.

READ MORE: To Start a New Habit, Do This First

Woman marking her new year new habits on a goals poster

Set realistic and meaningful goals.

Stay away from grandiose goals, Dr. Norcross advises: “‘I’m going to run a marathon; I’m going to lose 30 pounds; I’m going to write the great American novel.’ These rarely work.” Instead, start small. Commit to running around the track a few times a week. Eat dessert only on weekends. Write in a journal for 15 minutes every other day. Another strategy: Build incrementally on previous successes. A few years ago, Dr. Norcross resolved to floss his teeth every day. “I did it regularly when I was home. But I realized that I skipped it while traveling,” he says. “The next year, I committed to flossing even when I was on the road.”

Does your resolution truly matter to you? That’s key. If it’s a goal you feel you should achieve but don’t really want to, keeping a resolution may prove difficult. “Maybe it’s your mother who wants you to get a more prestigious job,” Dr. Norcross says. “If you start with a goal that truly energizes you, you’re more likely to stick with it.”

Pastor and best-selling author Mark Batterson believes you need to spend time in quiet contemplation before setting your resolutions. That way, you can discern what God is calling you to do. “Is God the loudest voice in your life? Make sure that other voices, including your own self-talk, aren’t drowning him out,” he says.

Guideposts.org blogger Holly Lebowitz Rossi phrases her resolutions in the form of a question, much like the game show Jeopardy. “‘I will make at least one new friend this year’ becomes ‘How can I connect with new people this year—and what will it feel like to grow my social circle?’ Asking yourself how you can make your life more positive puts far less pressure on you. You can’t fail a question,” she says. “And asking yourself the why is very powerful.”

Woman writing her new year new habits in a journal at her desk

Develop a specific action plan.

Once you have a goal—paying off that credit card debt, for example—think about how you are going to get there. “How will you cut back on spending each day, each week and each month?” says Dr. Norcross.

Batterson says that writing down resolutions—and your game plan—is imperative. “The first benefit is clarity. The process of putting things on paper forces us to be precise. Second is the fact that writing encodes things into long-term memory.”

Another tip: Schedule the hardest thing to do first thing in the morning. It’s what Batterson refers to as “eating the frog” in his bestseller Win the Day. By getting the task over with, you’ll feel both relieved and proud. Plus, adds Batterson, “how you start the day sets the tone for the rest of it.”

READ MORE: A Simple Morning Habit to Improve Your Day

Man talking with friends about his new year new habit

Publicly declare your resolution.

If writing down a resolution helps you focus, saying it to others takes it a step further. “One reason this is so effective is because you risk embarrassment, even humiliation, if you don’t follow through,” Dr. Norcross says. “If you walk into a party and say, ‘I’m giving up desserts,’ you can bet people will pounce all over you when you eat that first slice of cake.”

But do be selective. “Tell the important people in your life, those who are part of your support system,” Dr. Norcross says. “Saying it out loud makes the resolution more real.”

Man walking his dog on a path in the foods for a new year new habit

Stay the course.

According to Dr. Norcross, it takes approximately three months to make an initial change, struggle with it and then cement the new behavior. How can you give yourself the best shot at success? “Track your progress,” Dr. Norcross says. “Apps are great tools.” Two of his favorites are Fitness Buddy, for exercise, and Mint, for budgeting. “They combine self-monitoring, reminders and rewards.”

Resisting temptation is good, but one school of thought says removing temptation is an even better strategy. If your house is full of delicious cookies, it takes a lot of effort and self-control not to eat them after a bad day. But if you remove junk food from your house, you don’t have to worry about it.

If you make it past mid-January—“Ditch your New Year’s Resolution Day” is held on the second Friday of the month—reward yourself. Dr. Norcross suggests creating a “reward contract” with one of your supporters that clarifies beforehand how you will celebrate. “This is particularly useful for people who have trouble rewarding themselves,” he says. “For example: ‘If I stay on track with my studies all week, I get to pick the Friday night movie.’”

Despite the best of intentions, most people mess up at some point. In fact, Dr. Norcross says, most successful resolvers slip in January. “But a slip is not a fall; pick yourself up and recommit to your resolution,” he says. “Don’t let one missed exercise class end the exercise program. Research shows that one slip-up can actually strengthen your resolve.”

Amy Wong, lead editor at Guideposts, relies on a simple rule: Don’t go more than two days without _____. “Fill in the blank with the positive change you want to make in your life,” she says. “I’ve used this for practicing mindfulness, cooking from scratch, reading fiction.”

Two friends talking about new year new habits over coffee

Get support.

An accountability partner, or better yet a team, is critical. “The buddy system works,” Dr. Norcross says. “The goal is to obtain support and honesty, not criticism.” It can be a spouse, an online support group, a local Bible study, a friend who regularly checks in and encourages you.

Last year, Dr. Norcross spoke to an online book group focused on New Year’s resolutions. “There were 20 people, and everybody shared their worst behavior change story. It was hysterical. There was so much bonding. People kept in touch and supported each other remotely all year. Don’t underestimate the power of humor to keep you going when you most need a boost.”

This year, a friend and I were moaning to each other about not getting through our daily to-do lists. We set up a challenge. Each morning, she texts me and asks, “What are three things you are going to get done today, no matter what?” After I’ve shared my three items, I may still procrastinate. But as our 5:30 check-in time approaches, I take action. I make the call. I finish the article. I send the email. Sometimes all it takes is a friendly reminder.

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