Stock photo

A psychologist’s strategies for sticking to New Year’s resolutions

Anna Long

With only a few days to go before 2023 eclipses the old year, we’re looking back at everything we’ve accomplished and looking forward at what’s to come. Part of that process means making plans for New Year’s resolutions, though following through with them is often easier said than done—unless you have the right strategy, of course.

“You want to start by making sure your goal is really specific and narrow,” says Anna Long, associate professor and director of school training in LSU’s psychology department. The psych world refers to these as SMART goals. The S stands for “specific.” The M stands for “measurable,” or for a way to track your progress and collect evidence that lets you know when you’ve reached your goal. The A stands for “attainable” (“A college student setting a goal to lose 25 pounds for spring break in four weeks is not reasonable to accomplish, for example,” says Long). The R stands for “relevant,” or making sure that your goal aligns with your values and long-term objectives for yourself, your family or your career. And the T stands for “time.”

“So instead of saying you want to ‘be healthier,'” says Long, “you want to say exactly what you mean by that, and by what time, and how you would know you’ve accomplished it.”

But what if you’ve made your SMART goals only to discover a few months down the line that keeping pace with them is a bit harder than you thought?

“One of the best ways to handle that, especially if you’ve set a big goal, is to work backward and think about the tiny steps that can build upon themselves toward that bigger goal,” says Long.

This is called stacking. Take again, for example, the instance of wanting to be healthier in the new year.

“You start with a small initial change, something like ‘This week, I’m going to make sure I’m well-hydrated and drink eight glasses of water a day,'” says Long, who says that a strong “action plan” outlining a step-by-step schedule can help you stay motivated and organized. “Then once you’re showing consistency with that, you can build upon it with a next little step, which might be not eating or snacking after dinner.”

As for publicizing your goals to the world of social media in an attempt to hold yourself accountable—do so in a manner that works for you, preferably with caution.

“You want to think about who you’ve publicizing it to and whether or not those people are likely to be supportive and give positive encouragement,” says Long. “Then you also want to let those people know what kind of support or help they can lend you through the process, because different people appreciate different kinds of support. Sometimes your friends or loved ones think what they’re doing is supportive, but you may not find it supportive at all.”

Even so, she adds, at the end of the day, remember to practice kindness to yourself if plans don’t happen to work out the way you hoped they would.

“Obviously we want to reach our goals, but what we actually learn much more from is the process we go through trying to reach those goals,” says Long. “Maybe there’s a barrier to reaching your original goal, for example, and you should have started with clearing that barrier as your first goal. Reflecting on what you’re learning through that process helps you identify things that maybe you should have been shifting toward all along.”

Success, after all, does not equal perfection. Through a preliminary process called “coping planning,” you can even begin to prepare yourself for setbacks and downfalls, troubleshooting the emotional and social labor you might expect to encounter down the line.

“Life happens,” says Long, “so just being aware of the negative messaging you might accidentally send yourself—and catching yourself when you’re doing it, assessing whether the messaging is valid or harmful—can help you come up with more productive and helpful ways of thinking about things that will ultimately facilitate you in accomplishing your goals.”

This story originally appeared in a December 2021 edition of out inRegister@Home e-newsletter.