New Year’s resolutions: You always make them, and you always break them. But do some resolutions particularly set you up for failure?
TODAY talked with two experts to find out which resolutions are hardest to keep, and how you can still tackle them.
Katherine Milkman is an associate professor of operations, information, and decisions at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and John Norcross is a professor of psychology at the University of Scranton and author of “Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions.”
1. General, vague goals: ‘I want to lose a lot of weight’
One easy trap to fall into? Making goals that are too general, and thus harder to carry out.
“The more abstract your goal, the harder it’s going to be to figure out how to enact the behaviors you need to achieve,” Milkman said.
Instead, try breaking down your goal into bite-sized pieces. For instance, if you want to lose weight, try quantifying the amount and then setting mini-goals for yourself to help track your progress.
Apps are ideal for this: they serve as an artificial way of creating social support and pressure to succeed, Milkman said.
2. Physiological addictions: ‘I want to quit smoking’
Resolutions to kick addictions can be some of the most difficult ones to keep. That’s because “physiological processes are working against us,” Milkman said.
One solution? Changing your surroundings to best set yourself up for success. “Successful resolvers leverage their environment to help them,” Norcross told TODAY. “They remove high-risk temptations from around the house and workplace, and they add in reminders and positive statements.”
If you’re trying to quit smoking, try not to keep cigarettes in the house, car, or your desk at work. Avoid situations where you might normally be tempted to smoke, and try replacing them with other habits. For instance, those who are used to smoking to relax might pick up meditation instead, Norcross said.
3. Reactive goals: ‘I want to get my temper under control’
Some resolutions are difficult because they are reactive, or dependent on other people’s actions rather than your own. It can be hard to implement such resolutions — you can’t, for instance, go on a Weight Watchers plan for anger control, Milkman noted.
One solution is to try making concrete, “if-then” plans, Milkman said. For example, if you want to work on your anger, don’t just make a resolution to get angry less. Try thinking about the triggers for your anger, and how you will manage them differently, Milkman said.
That means visualizing that obnoxious coworker or overbearing mother-in-law, Milkman continued, and rehearsing potential conflicts in your head until you figure out how to successfully respond.
4. Unsupported goals: ‘I want to exercise more’
If you go it alone, you may have a harder time keeping your resolutions. “Finding social supporters is important,” Milkman said, noting the value of finding people who will not only cheer us on, but hold us accountable for our mistakes.
This becomes especially important towards the end of January and early February, when the first few weeks of momentum have ended, Norcross added. “After a while, the lack of support and validating environments tend to get to people,” Norcross said.
To counteract this, Norcross recommended the buddy system: use coworkers, friends, and even online support groups to keep your motivation high.
5. All or nothing goals: ‘I want to eliminate sugar from my diet’
The bottom line is that, at some point during the year, you may break a New Year’s resolution. But that doesn’t have to be the end of your goal.
If you view your resolution in a black-or-white light, you may feel one mistake means failure and be tempted to give up entirely. It doesn’t have to be that way.
“This isn’t just about dashing through the first couple weeks of January,” Norcross said. “This is for the long haul — it’s about persistence.”
Realize there’s a difference between a slip and a fall, Norcross said. Social situations, increased stress, and interpersonal pressure may eventually lead to a slip — but “a slip is not an indication that you’re doomed and should be giving up.”
Norcross’ research has shown 71 percent of successful resolvers said their first slip strengthened their efforts. By figuring out what went wrong — perhaps you need to further rearrange your environment, get a support system, or find new positive behaviors to replace negative old ones — you can re-evaluate and recommit to your goal. Remember that failure is just part of the process.