Research and common sense show us that most New Year’s resolutions fail within the first few months of the New Year. Half of people admit to giving up on their New Year’s goals before January 31st and only 8% of people are truly successful at achieving their resolutions. How can you beat the odds and achieve your goals despite these grim statistics? 

The first step is to appreciate that simply engaging in the process of attempting to achieve your New Year’s resolutions can be beneficial. Setting and working toward goals—even if you are not 100% successful in realizing them—is associated with higher motivation, self-esteem, self-confidence, and feelings of self-control. Research also shows that engaging in the goal setting process makes you more likely to be successful, compared to people who don’t set goals at all. Read on for scientifically-backed ways to make sure you are part of the “8% club” and achieve all your dreams in 2021. 

Spend time reflecting on the why of your goal

Research shows that when goals are tied to your personal values they are much more likely to come true. For example, if your top three core values are personal responsibility, honesty and family you could frame a goal to lose weight this way, “I want to take personal responsibility for my health by losing weight and exercising more. I will hold myself honestly accountable for my successes and setbacks. I want to be healthier so that I can be more energetic and present for my family for many years to come.” To engage the powerful force of tying your goals to your personal values, spend time considering your top 3-5 personal values and craft resolutions that are tied to them. 

Choose approach instead of avoidant goals

Research shows that goals focusing on increasing positive, health oriented behavior—approaching what you want—are more likely to be successful than avoidant goals—which are focused on what you don’t want. An example of this approach would be, “Eat more vegetables every week” as opposed to, “Stop eating junk food.” If your goals are activity related you might choose the goal, “exercise 3 times a week,” versus, “Stop being a couch potato.” Creating positive, action oriented goals will increase your odds of achieving them. 

Use S.M.A.R.T goal setting

“Losing weight” and “being a better person” were two of the most popular New Year’s resolutions for 2018. Unfortunately neither of these goals are specific, measurable or timely, three important components of the S.M.A.R.T goal setting system. How can we reframe these common goals to be more S.M.A.R.T? “Lose 10 pounds by March 1st,” gives this goal specifics, a way for success to be measured and a time component (which increases urgency and reduces procrastination). “Volunteer 1 hour a week at a meaningful cause” makes “being a better person,” S.M.A.R.Ter by adding a specifics and measurement (1 hour a week) and also making the goal relevant (a meaningful cause) and attainable (1 hour a week is a doable, not overwhelming time commitment). How can you make your resolutions S.M.A.R.Ter (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time specific)?

Have a plan for inevitable setbacks

The road to any challenging and meaningful goal will have setbacks. Taking some time to anticipate what these obstacles might be and how you will respond to them can help you be prepared. This process can also help you respond thoughtfully to challenges instead of reacting emotionally. For example, what if your gym becomes very crowded in the New Year and you find you are no longer enjoying your workouts? What are your options? You could reorganize your schedule to go at a less crowded time, you could start exercising at home or you could try wearing noise cancelling headphones at your gym. Anticipating and being prepared for as many challenges as possible before they happen will help you navigate through inevitable setbacks and set you up for success. 

Break big goals into manageable chunks

Goals such as “Lose 50 pounds!” and “Run a marathon!” can be super inspiring, but if not broken down into manageable, doable chunks they can quickly lead to overwhelm and quitting.

Experts suggest breaking down more ambitious New Year’s resolution goals into weekly and monthly milestones, which can increase short term motivation and give you feedback on your progress. Research also shows those who celebrate achieving these milestones along the way and regularly reward themselves for their efforts toward their goals are more likely to stick to their plans and achieve what they set out to do. How will you reward yourself when you reach your first milestone? 

Support and resources help!

Before jumping into action on your New Year’s resolution, an honest assessment of the tools, support, expertise and equipment you have access to can help you fill in the gaps and build on your strengths. Many people who peter out on their resolutions skip this important step and then end up quitting due to lack of resources and support. Your support team can offer accountability, help with troubleshooting obstacles, cheer you on when you are successful and offer support when you are feeling frustrated. Taking time to enlist the support of friends, family, coaches or other experts can significantly increase your odds of achieving your goal. Who and what do you need in your resolution corner for the best chances of success?

Take-away highlights
  • Tie your goal to your personal values 
  • Choose striving for positive versus avoiding negative goals
  • Use S.M.A.R.T goal setting to make your goals as powerful and effective as possible.
  • Troubleshoot problems and celebrate achievements 
  • Break your bigger goals into smaller, achievable chunks 
  • Gather resources and enlist support