It's time again for a crop of lofty new goals and aspirations: Slim down, stay organized, save money, be nicer. Unfortunately, research shows that 92 percent of people fail to keep their New Year's resolutions. In fact, it takes only one week for a quarter of us to give up. Thankfully, experts say there are simple strategies that can boost the odds of success.
A new year means a clean slate, and it's tempting to fill it with a host of hopes, dreams, and goals. But science shows that overloaded brains can make poor decisions. For example, a Stanford study had people memorize either a two- or seven-digit number, then invited them to eat either fruit salad or cake. People working harder to remember the longer number were almost twice as likely make the unhealthy choice. In other words, following through on resolutions takes time and effort, and stumbles are more likely if attention is divided.
Lose weight. Save more money. Be a better person. All are worthy goals, but way too general. Experts say it's extremely hard to stick to a resolution if the goal is unclear. Behavioral psychologists recommend making resolutions "SMART": specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. "Saving more money" is less effective than "save $100 a month by skipping dinners out and buying less clothing, putting it in a high-interest savings account, and using it only for emergencies."
According to conventional wisdom, it takes more than 20 days for new habits to solidify. Unfortunately, that's probably far too optimistic. One study found that it takes 66 days on average and as long as 245 days for anyone attempting a daily change such as exercising for 15 minutes or eating more fruit. So if keeping a resolution feels like a struggle, it's not a personal failing; brains are biased toward the status quo. Knowing you're running a marathon, not a sprint, may help blunt initial frustration over setbacks.
Experts say that setting smaller and more attainable goals is a winning method that can be applied to any kind of resolution. Meeting "mini goals" shows results sooner, providing motivation to stay committed in the long run, the American Counseling Association says. In other words, to eat better, start by skipping nightly dessert instead of jumping feet first into a restrictive clean-eating plan.
Unsurprisingly, money is a great motivator. In a study of people trying to lose weight or stop smoking, those who risked losing money if they failed were more likely to meet goals. DietBet users chip in money -- typically anywhere from $20 to $100 -- and commit to losing 4 percent of their body weight in 28 days. Anyone who meets that goal gets to split a pot of contributions. StickK allows other customized goals and incentives.
Just as important as pursuing realistic goals is taking the time to record progress. It keeps you involved with your goals and thinking about what it will take to achieve them. There are dozens of apps designed to help; PCMag suggests Strides for iPhone users and Resolutions for Android users. If you're aiming to lose weight, top picks include MyFitnessPal and FitStar. Smokers should check out MyQuit Coach. The financially minded can create a better budget with Mint.
New Year's resolutions shouldn't be isolating. An "accountability partner" can help, possibly by committing to attending a fitness class with you every week, or supporting healthier eating by agreeing to steer clear of certain high-calorie foods. Even better, find someone who has "been there, done that" to act as a mentor. One study found that diabetics were better able to get their disease under control by pairing with patients who had already done so. Experts caution against proclaiming goals too loudly on social media, however. Studies show it's all too easy to confuse credit for publicly committing to a goal with actual progress toward it.
The head of Columbia University's Motivational Science Center divides resolutions into two types: promotion and prevention. Although aspirational goals (such as getting fit enough to run a 5K or going on a trip around the world) may seem more fun, prevention goals (such as paying down a loan faster) are easier to achieve because there are more real-world consequences for failing. While failing at a promotion goal may be disappointing, it's unlikely to create a sense of urgency or anxiety day to day.
"All or nothing" is a dangerous attitude for meeting new goals. Having a doughnut occasionally is okay, but deciding "the damage is done" and gorging on a dozen is not. Everyone slips up, but it's important to let go of those mistakes, recommit, and move on. Anger or disappointment is a sign you care -- that's good.
Use small rewards to accompany small goals -- research shows that it gives the brain the frequent stimulation it needs to maintain motivation. Someone trying to lose weight might allow a small reward after a week of trips to the gym or a modest weight loss, instead of buying a whole new wardrobe at the 50-pound mark. And although conventional wisdom suggests choosing a reward that won't sabotage the behavior you're trying to promote (for instance, a non-food reward for losing weight), it might be better to choose something you actually crave, says Charles Duhigg, author of "The Power of Habit." If that's a small piece of chocolate, that might be okay -- just don't make it a jumbo chocolate cupcake.