4 Essential Elements of a Successful New Year’s Resolution

“Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man.” – Benjamin Franklin

Most of us begin to think about New Year’s resolutions as we near the end of each year. This can be an optimistic time of earnest reflection on habits that we would like to break, build, or change. We may look back on past resolutions and consider whether or not we were able to keep our commitments to ourselves. This is a time for realistic, yet hopeful, self-appraisal – a time to take a fearless look within to assess where we would most like to witness growth within ourselves.

What really makes the difference between successful and unsuccessful New Year’s resolutions? Surely the person who really wants it the most will be successful… right? A little bit of life experience tells us that simply wanting something very badly is not sufficient to obtaining it. Fortunately, researchers are just as interested in what makes successful New Year’s resolutions as we are.

According to a recent study published in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,” committing to a specific plan to accomplish a goal not only makes success more likely, it also frees your mind so that it can think about other things. Assistant professor E.J. Masicampo explains, “Once a plan is made, we can stop thinking about that one goal. This frees our minds to focus on other tasks or simply enjoy the current moment.”

Elements of a Successful New Year’s Resolution

Not just any old plan will do the trick. According to Masicampo, there are four essential elements of a successful plan:

(1) Specify exactly what you’re going to do and in what situation (where and when).

(2) The plan is under your control and not dependent on someone else’s behavior.

(3) The plan includes specific opportunities to meet the chosen goal in situations that are likely to occur.

(4) The plan focuses on a goal you are genuinely motivated to accomplish.

Masicampo states that most importantly, “You have to picture yourself carrying out your plan. That’s where the power of the plans lie, in imagining yourself completing the tasks.” When your plan feels realistic and attainable, yet just beyond your current grasp, you will be motivated to push yourself by extending your reach and maintaining your focus and momentum.

Potential pitfalls of a successful New Year’s resolution:

  • Your goal is completely unrealistic (you must be honest with yourself about your true capabilities).
  • Your goal is really someone else’s goal either for you or for themselves.
  • Your goal is vague, unclear, or nonspecific in some way.

Begin to vividly imagine yourself being successful with your New Year’s resolution(s). When you begin to visualize new behaviors in your mind, your brain actually responds as if you were truly acting out the behavior. This type of visualization and mental training can give you an edge on beginning to develop a new habit or maintain a new behavior. “It’s all about making a habit out of the goal. A plan is like creating a habit ahead of time,” says Masicampo, “before you have actually done anything.”

If your New Year’s resolution is particularly complex or involves a set of behaviors, break down the resolution into smaller chunks. When you break down complex goals into manageable steps, you are increasing your likelihood of success. This enables you to avoid becoming overwhelmed and to experience small successes en route to your ultimate goal. When your goal feels like a distant prize that is blurry on the horizon, it is easy to lose sight of its importance or meaning.

For example, if your New Year’s resolution is to lose weight, it is best to make “if, then” plans for specific situations that can help you accomplish the overall goal. When you have “if, then” plans, you have pre-committed to how you will handle yourself in certain situations. You might make a plan that “if” you visit your favorite restaurant (that you know serves a lot of heavy or unhealthy items), “then” you will order a tasty or light salad that you already know you enjoy.

The plan itself acts as a cue to act. When you truly commit to the plan, then all you really have to do is wait for the cue. In this case, visiting your favorite restaurant would be the cue to act on the plan to order a tasty or light salad. When you set up “if, then” plans in advance, you don’t have to use up the cognitive energy and resources to resist temptation, exert willpower, or try to remember how to best stick to your overall goal of losing weight. These plans allow you to engage in automatic behaviors that are in your best interest and in line with your chosen goal(s).

“Every time you make a plan, you tether a goal to a future context, and it can stop floating around in your head and distracting you from your other goals,” Masicampo says. Planning in this specific way allows you to maintain your focus on the task at hand, rather than become sidetracked or overwhelmed by the larger goal or smaller tertiary goals.

Adopting an attitude of mindfulness is helpful in maintaing your focus on the present moment and the next small obtainable step toward your larger goal. All you have to do in this present moment is take the next small step in the right direction. Choose to be present and allow anxiety about the future to fall away. All that exists is this moment in time – right now. What small step can you take in this present moment to head in the direction of your long-term goals? Begin to get in the habit of asking yourself, “Is what I am about to do going to take me closer to or further from my ultimate goal?”

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Wake Forest University. (2011, December 17). “How Making A Plan Can Help You Meet New Year’s Goals.” Medical News Today. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/239389.php.

Featured image: Happy 2009! by ginnerobot / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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