Making New Year’s resolutions is a tradition that dates back to the ancient Babylonians — some 4,000 years ago. At the start of each crop planting season, they’d reflect on the year that had passed and make promises to the gods to earn their favor in the months ahead.
While the motivation for making resolutions has since evolved, the New Year still serves as a time for reflection and intention-setting. Recent surveys show that almost 75 percent of Americans set a personal goal at the start of each January.
But if resolutions are all about personal betterment, why do studies show that 92 percent of them fail?
Hayley Perlus, PhD, specializes in sports and performance psychology, and she offers some dos and don’ts for forming resolutions that stick — and the great news is that this advice works not just on January 1 — you can resolve to make a positive change at any time of the year.
When you make a resolution, you’re making a commitment to create rituals that will become habits — and over time, these habits will grow into a part of your identity, says Perlus.
“Whether it’s joining a gym, starting to read more books, learning an instrument, or volunteering, it’s all about daily or weekly rituals,” she explains. Be clear with yourself about how you’ll achieve your goals.
The only thing that sets New Year’s resolutions apart is that you’re using this symbolic “new beginning” to kickstart your new, positive habit (or to break a bad one.)
It’s important to not just set an intention — but also to align your mindset around the why. Take the time to think about what good forming this habit will do for your broader goals.
“If you feel like you’ve been stuck in a rut and need to stick with these rituals to be happy, recognize it,” offers Perlus as an example.
“Many of us are guilty of this type of thinking,” Perlus says. For example, if we eat French fries when we’re trying to limit fried foods, we throw in the towel on our goal instead of seeing it as a small bump in the road.
“Taking baby steps toward our goals is better than taking no steps at all,” she says. ”The secret is to keep pushing forward.”
Perlus says that there’s a core principle in psychology: if you can measure it, you can change it.
“Measurements serve as a source of inspiration to allow you to see where you began and where you are,” she explains.
That means you need to set specific goals you can measure and reach for — not vague intentions like “exercise more” or “eat healthy.” Instead, set clearly defined, realistic goals you have control over, like walking 7,500 steps or eating five servings of vegetables per day.
Change is hard to achieve because it requires us to move outside of our comfort zone. That’s why having an accountability structure in place can offer the support you need to develop — and sustain — your new habits.
You don’t necessarily need to post your progress to social media, but telling some trusted friends or family members about your goal can help keep your momentum flowing.
Creating a new ritual or habit is about progress — not perfection — so it’s all about understanding what tricks help you build consistency.
You could try habit stacking, or building new routines around habits you already have.
For example, if you want to start flossing, you can inject the new habit into your existing bedtime routine. Relying on the existing structure of well-worn habits makes it easier to anchor new ones.
Habit reflection is another effective method.
“[It’s] when you think back and acknowledge your past successful habits to plan for the start of new ones,” Perlus explains. This process helps you recognize why certain habits stuck and others didn’t — so you can set future goals proactively and strategically.
Let’s say you used to read books all the time in high school and want to re-establish the ritual. Upon reflection, you realize the social aspect of discussing books with your friends is what worked to encourage the habit.
“This shows you enjoy talking and sharing experiences,” Perlus says, and joining a book club will help cater to this part of the habit that motivates you. But you can also apply this understanding — that you’re motivated by the social side of an activity — to create other habits as well.
“Take the time to reward yourself for growth and recognize your efforts,” Perlus says. Celebrating your progress — or simply your consistency — helps keep you motivated toward your goal.
Just be sure to choose rewards that won’t counteract your progress, like taking a week off of the gym to celebrate a week of exercise.