We’re all looking forward to where 2021 will take us—and perhaps best of all it will take us out of 2020. If you’re like most of us, you’re full of starry-eyed hope and determination to accomplish a raft of new year resolutions. But statistically, you won’t keep them. According to a classic study, only 19% of people do. You can buck the trend, however, and keep your resolutions—following the guidelines below.
First, know you’re in good company setting new resolutions. Beginning in ancient Rome, renewed plans were part of festivals celebrating Janus (think: January)—who looked to the past and to the future—honoring home, family, friends and civil life. People worked only in the morning and had the afternoon off for parties, gift giving and offering blessings to each other for success in the new year.
For the 81% of us who have struggled to keep our resolutions, our brains are working against us. Research published in Current Biology found we are more likely to repeat pleasing activities because we get a hit of dopamine (the feel-good neurochemical) when we approach previously-positive activities. Even seeing a delicious dessert causes the release and can thwart your efforts to select the vegetables you’ve resolved to eat instead.
So how can you succeed where you’ve failed before? How can you finally achieve your new year resolutions? Here are 10 tips which can put you on a path toward a positive 2021:
#1 Make It Real
Distinguish between your overall vision and habits. Focus on your big bets but be specific about the daily habits which will accumulate toward success. Be sure your habits are specific and actionable. While your aim may be to ‘be a better person,’ a powerful habit will be to volunteer at your preferred agency for one hour per week. Perhaps you want to write a book. Great, but you’ll be more likely to achieve this desire by committing to writing for a half hour a day, five days a week. Be specific about the actions you’ll take, not just the end you want to achieve.
#2 Be Reasonable
You’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: ensure your aims are attainable. If your goal is to play at Carnegie Hall and you’re only just learning the violin fingering for “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, you’re reaching too high. Set ambitious targets that are attainable and keep in mind you can build over time. This year, you may learn the rudimentary grammar for a second language and seek to spend an hour a week with a native speaker. Perhaps in subsequent years, you can seek to be truly fluent.
#3 Tie Your Actions To Your Identity
Fascinating research has identified people have more success shifting their behaviors when they link them with their identity, rather than using willpower. Perhaps you’d like to take a Saturday afternoon nap rather than the long walk you promised yourself. If you simply apply willpower, you may be more likely to take the nap instead of the walk. But if you tell yourself something like, “I am not a person who shirks my responsibility to fitness,” or, “I am a person who keeps my commitments to myself,” or “I am a person who values action over slacking,” you will be more likely to make strides toward your new, preferred behaviors.
#4 Link Your Habits
Another powerful way to successfully adopt a new set of habits is to link a new behavior to an existing one. For example, if your big goal is to expand your knowledge and you’ve decided you want to listen to informative books more often, link your listening to another habit that is already part of your daily repertoire. Perhaps every day while you’re brushing your teeth and getting ready, you can listen to your Audible book selection.
#5 Establish Accountability
Write down your targets, this will help you be accountable to yourself. In addition, share your goals with others and ask them to check in with you and give you feedback. If your goal is to avoid procrastinating on your projects at work, ask your colleague to give you a friendly nudge when they hear you putting things off. Or if you want to do daily push-ups, ask your roommate to give you a gentle reminder if evening is approaching and you haven’t dropped for 10.
#6 Share The Process (Or The Pain)
One of the best ways to keep your resolutions is to make them mutual. Partner with others who have the same aims. If your goal is to be more creative, find a buddy with whom you can craft regularly. Or if your objective is to run a marathon, find a friend with whom you can train daily. If you want to lose your Covid 15 weight gain, establish a small group of similarly-minded pals with whom you can commit and commiserate.
#7 Realize The Power Of Small Steps And Mark Progress
An important strategy in maintaining changes in behavior is to reduce your perception of effort. An interesting example, published in Sports Medicine, found people stuck with their exercise programs for longer periods of time when they drank coffee. The reason: because the caffeine gave them bursts of energy and reduced their perception of exertion. Incremental effort works this way as well. Take small steps. Also, track your progress over time. Use a calendar and mark off the days you’ve accomplished your new behavioral goals. Track yourself and make things visible to give yourself an important, tangible sense of accomplishment. Perhaps your goal is to find a new job. Plan to reach out to two new contacts or apply for one new job per day. Give yourself credit for every small step you take and reward yourself along the way.
#8 Take Breaks
As the saying goes, “Everything in moderation, even moderation.” Build in days when you can celebrate. For example, if your goal is to do intermittent fasting, plan for one day a week when you eat throughout the day. If you plan for small moments of reprieve from your new behavior, you won’t be cheating (read: you won’t have to beat yourself up). You can help ensure you give yourself time to take a breath and recharge for the next bout of following your new rules.
#9 Manage your Mindset
Changing behaviors isn’t easy. Your current ways of doing things have carved pathways in your brain, and establishing new linkages can be uncomfortable. Get comfortable with discomfort and reassure yourself you can do it. You have some exciting aspirations and if they were easy, they probably wouldn’t be worth doing. Those who achieve their resolutions are distinguished from those who don’t by the ability to put aside short-term satisfaction for long-term gain. Consider how you’ll feel immediately compared with the trade-off over time. The chocolate cake may be delicious in the moment, but the tightness of your pants (because we’ll have to wear button pants again someday) is an unfortunate trade off. Remind yourself you’d rather have the lasting goodness of health and fitness, than the quick hit of chocolate bliss.
#10 Remember Your Why
Perhaps most important for your ongoing motivation is to remember your overall purpose. You want to acquire a new skill, so you can make an awesome contribution at work and have terrific credibility in your field. You want to learn a language, so you can make a greater contribution in your community. Or you want to get healthy, so you can provide support for your family over the long term. The big picture is always motivational, so don’t just focus on laying bricks, keep in mind the cathedral you’re building.
The pandemic has been terrible and horrible, but it has provided the opportunity to learn, grow and become more resilient. Use the difficulty of 2020 as a jumping-off point for 2021 and all you’ll accomplish as you go forward. You can achieve your new year resolutions. You can succeed. You can make 2021 a year of progress and positivity.