How many times have you purchased a gym membership in January only to find that by February, your gym pass is mere decoration on your already cluttered keychain?
You don’t need us to tell you that New Year’s resolutions rarely stick.
The most common resolutions are exactly the ones you might expect: drink less alcohol, exercise more, lose weight, get a better job, quit smoking, save money, stress less. If following them were fun or easy, they wouldn’t show up on your list year after disgruntled year.
But there’s a secret you didn’t know last year: willpower won’t work.
“The reason we tend to have the same resolutions every year is that we rely too heavily on willpower,” says Heidi Grant Halverson, Ph.D., social psychologist and author of “Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.” “Somehow this is the year we’ll have the self-control not to eat sweets or to quit smoking. Willpower, even when you have a lot of it, is a fickle friend. It ebbs and flows throughout the day and is very much a limited resource.”
By learning these simple tricks to take willpower out of the equation, you can check those ever-elusive goals off your to-do list once and for all.
1. Start small. Optimism is great, but a too-ambitious goal will be in the trash by mid-January. “You need to ease into your resolutions,” says YouBeauty Psychology Advisor Art Markman, Ph.D., author of “Smart Thinking.” “If you’ve never exercised before, you probably shouldn’t plan on running a marathon by the summer.” Each goal you tackle should feel manageable.
Halverson recommends breaking a goal down into bite-size pieces and tackling them one at a time. “If you want to eat better, start by eliminating one thing from your diet,” she says. “Willpower is like a muscle that grows with use, so you’ll find that as you’re doing it, it gets easier and easier—it becomes a new habit.” When you feel like you’ve got that down pat, start in on the next step.
2. Be specific. When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, the English teachers’ mantra holds true: specific is terrific. “People who want to lose weight will say, ‘I plan to eat less and exercise more,’” says Halverson. “That’s really a terrible plan. What are you going to eat less of? How much less? If you’re going to work out more, how much more?”
When you set a goal, focus on how you plan to achieve it. Instead of saying “I’ll exercise more,” say, “I will go to the gym near my office on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at six o’clock.” One study found that people who planned the specific days and times they’d exercise each week were three times more likely to actually stick to the goal. At the end of the study, 32 percent of the people who didn’t make a plan were still exercising versus 91 percent of the people who did.
3. Ask for help. A friend can be a great motivator to help you reach your goals, as long as you choose wisely. “Pick someone who loves going to the gym,” says Halverson. “If it’s already a part of their regular routine, that’s the person who will say, ‘Come on, let’s go!’ when you say you don’t want to go.”
Talk to your family when your lifestyle changes—such as serving more wholesome meals or picking them up a half hour later so you can go to the gym—will affect them. “Many women will give up on their goals if they feel like it’s disrupting the family,” says Markman. “If you really have something you need to change, there is going to be disruption. Find out what you can do to make sure they don’t feel like they’ve lost something important.”
4. Anticipate setbacks. If the dessert menu is your weight loss weakness or the couch sounds more appealing than the treadmill after a long day at work, then try making a contingency plan—a technique that psychologists refer to as "if/then planning."
The strategy is simple: Make a list of the triggers that could stop you from reaching your goal and decide how you want to react in each of those situations. “Have a plan in advance,” says Markman. “If you want to lose weight, what will you do when there’s a gorgeous buffet at a party? Who will take care of the kids if you’re at the gym?”
That strategy primes you for success. “The reason it works so well is you don’t miss opportunities to act,” says Halverson. “When you make an if/then plan, your brain on an unconscious level starts scanning for that moment to occur.” You won’t need willpower when temptation knocks on your door—you’ll have already decided what to do.
5. Have patience. “The goal doesn’t need to be reached in a day or a week or even a month,” says Markman. “You want to be on the road toward the goal.” That might mean slow progress, but small victories are the ticket to lasting success. “It’s got to be about doing a little bit better this week than last week,” says Halverson. “It’s about improvement, not perfection.”
Several years ago, after a string of yo-yo diets, Halverson finally applied her own strategies and lost the 50 pounds she put on during her pregnancy. “It took me almost two years, but I lost it,” she says. Because she had the patience to lose the weight slowly, her lifestyle habits had time to adapt and she’s been able to keep the weight off.
This year, you can do it too.
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