For 2019, Craig Melvin has vowed to spend more time with his family, be more mindful and touch his toes with a little less of a struggle. Craig is like millions of other Americans who make New Year’s resolutions.
But unlike others, Craig doesn’t start his resolution on January 1: He starts his in February. He said it helps him ease into the changes and make them last.
He just might be onto something: Preparing for a transition helps people create lasting habits.
“I start the New Year's resolution conversation in October. I try to get my patients to start their resolutions by early November,” Kristin Kirkpatrick, a dietitian in Denver and TODAY contributor, said. “If you can make it through the holidays in a really healthy manner, you are more likely to make it a habit.”
Choose a start date that works for you, not an arbitrary date.
Easing into a resolution might make it easier for people to stick with their goals, but research shows that people feel motivated to start new habits during a meaningful time. That’s why so many people use a new year as motivation. But it’s not the only time people might kick off a new behavior — many choose birthdays, the start of a school year, an anniversary or a new semester to make a transformation.
“They are more likely to start at a meaningful time because they think they are on the path to succeed,” Hengchen Dai, an assistant professor of management, organizations and behavior decision making at UCLA Anderson School of Management, told TODAY. “We don’t know that it will lead to a higher success rate.”
People make a change at such calendar milestones because they believe that date represents a new beginning.
“That is their fresh start,” Dai explained. “It is the personal meaning that matters … It’s when they feel high energy and confident.”
Why do so many resolutions fail?
While people feel excited to try new behaviors during important times, they don’t always follow through. Take New Year’s resolutions: Most people abandon their resolutions by February.
“I have definitely observed this in my own patients,” Kirkpatrick said. “We are failing six weeks in.”
One reason? Many don’t consider their friends and family when considering a change. If someone wants to go vegan but everyone they know eats a keto diet, that person will always be staring at bacon and struggling to transform, Kirkpatrick said.
“We can’t overcome environment,” she said.
Who you surround yourself with is the biggest indicator of how successful you’ll be at changing.
“For example, research has shown when your friends tend to be obese you are more likely to be obese,” Dai said. “The people around you and your behavior tend to be the same.”
But goals made at any time also fail because people are overly ambitious when they vow to change.
“People set these lofty, vague and kind of unreasonable goals,” Lily Brown, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, told TODAY. “We set ourselves up for failure.”
Brown said she has patients who will make a New Year’s resolution that they want to go to the gym six times a week, cut all sugar and drink less alcohol. It is just too much to change at once.
How to make a resolution that will last:
“The real key for any kind of behavior change, starting low and slow and starting realistically,” Brown said. “Be really honest about the likelihood of achieving your goal.”
If you don’t go to the gym at all and drink six sodas a day, changing just one of these behaviors will take a lot of work.
“I would suggest that a person start going to the gym maybe one day a week,” Brown said. “After a couple weeks of success they can go more. Taking that approach tends to result in more sustainable change.”
But what about delaying the resolution like Melvin: Could it work? Possibly. As long as the goals are realistic and people feel connected to the start date. The expectations may differ with a later start. Just as everyone makes a resolution January 1, many people expect to quit in February. Starting a new habit outside the norm could mean success.
“If it is something more meaningful to you, you will be more motivated to do it then than when everyone else is starting something,” Dai said.
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