Make Your Resolutions Stick: 5 Tips for Success

Jan 24, 2014

By Faith Hayden, Senior Writer/Editor

Of the 45% of Americans who commit to a lifestyle change on January 1, only 8% will succeed, according to the Journal of Clinical Psychology. These numbers are no surprise to lifestyle coaches, who know just how hard it can be to break a bad habit. The problem, according Cynthia Ackrill, MD, President of WellSpark Leadership Development, is that people set themselves up to fail by not carefully planning how they will make the change.

“When we go to make a behavior change, we often don’t think about what it takes to make one. We say we’ll just use willpower,” Dr. Ackrill explained. “Willpower is great, but it doesn’t last. In order for a real behavior change to occur, you have to rewire the brain and overcome the obstacles in the way and competing desires. It’s about setting yourself up to win.”

Although rewiring the brain isn’t easy, the good news is reaching your goals is possible with preparation and support. We spoke to four life coaches and gathered their best advice on making a resolution stick.

Tip 1: Set one goal at a time
The main reason people fail to keep their resolutions is because they take on too many goals at once, developing a shopping list of changes that are impossible to keep, said life coaches Tora Cullip and Donna Richards, co-authors of the self-help book I Want What She’s Having, Now! To combat this tendency, Ms. Cullip and Ms. Richards have developed a seven-step program called “Bite Off What You Can Chew,” designed to help goal-setters navigate the entire resolution process.

“To be successful, you must startsmall and get habits to stick,” said Ms. Cullip. “Never change more than three habits at a time. Usually one is best for results.”

Life coach Stacia Pierce, CEO of Ultimate Lifestyle Enterprises, also instructs her clients to focus on one goal at a time, even if they have multiple goals for the entire year. “You don’t want to get overwhelmed,” she said. “What first goal are you going to focus on? What are we going to do today and accomplish in the next 30 days? Break it down and fine-tune what is most important right now.”

Tip 2: Forget willpower
Once you’ve established the one goal you’d like to reach, it’s time to sit and contemplate your intrinsic motivation. Ms. Cullip and Ms. Richards call this step establishing “WhyPower.” “WhyPower is a replacement of willpower, because the latest research shows that willpower is exhaustible,” explained Ms. Richards. “Like anything, it comes down to your desire; what’s going to get you up to go running on a cold, rainy morning? If you can’t answer why you’re doing it, you’ll end up staying in bed.”

Remember, simply saying “because I should” is not going to keep you motivated long-term; there has to be passion and desire to keep you going after willpower runs out.

Tip 3: Be kind
A common misconception is that type-A high achievers have an easier time meeting goals because they’ve been so successful in other parts of their lives. Not so, say Dr. Ackrill and Ms. Pierce. There are certain personality traits that make high achievers prone to fail. For example, having an all-or-nothing mindset and fixating on perfection can cause you to give up early on.

“Type-A personalities tend to get frustrated when things don’t go right the first time,” said Ms. Pierce. “They want everything to go perfectly and work out exactly how they had it in their head, but they have to cut themselves some slack. [It’s about] learning to say, even though it wasn’t perfect I don’t have to give up on the whole thing.”

It’s also important not to beat yourself up if you miss a goal target one day. Instead of thinking negatively, strategize how you can improve next time.

“Most high achievers have very strong inner critics, which can sabotage their best intent,” Dr. Ackrill explained.“Be kind to yourself, and then look at why you’re failing. Switch that critic to curiosity: I don’t seem to be succeeding here, why is that? What is the obstacle?”

Tip 4: Establish accountability
Holding yourself accountable is a critical step to achieving your goals. Ms. Pierce advises her clients to create a contract, specifically listing what they want to accomplish and how they will accomplish it. She also advises clients to keep a daily journal, recording their thoughts, feelings, reasons for continuing, and challenges they face. Sharing that journal with a friend can help keep you on task.

“A journal will keep you motivated,” she explained. “Get an accountability partner, someone close to you to check your progress. If you have a good friend, you can have an email exchange. Having to answer to someone really makes a difference.”

Tip 5: Reward yourself
Celebrate your successes by congratulating yourself for a goal well met. Ms. Cullip advises clients to reward themselves weekly for the first six weeks. “It can small or large rewards, but for that tricky start it’s great to have a reward to look forward to at the end of the week,” she said.

After you get going, establish larger rewards for meeting your goal for longer periods of time. It’s important, however, that the reward is tangible and not counterproductive to the goal at hand. If your goal is to lose 10 pounds, for example, don’t center your reward around food or drink. Try rewarding yourself with a fun activity instead.

Did you make a New Year's resolution?
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