It’s a couple days past New Year's, the traditional time to resolve to make positive changes to your life. Perhaps you want to improve your health, turn a bad habit into a good one, or get your finances in order. In fact, new financial goals such as spending less, saving more, paying down debt, or sticking to a budget are routinely among the top New Year’s resolutions. No matter what your pledge, it'll be much more difficult to follow through if you make resolutions that, for one reason or another, are nearly impossible to keep.
Don't set yourself up for failure. Here's what NOT to do when making resolutions:
Set unrealistic goals. Full of resolve, we typically start off the year sure we can go forever without the spending pleasures we enjoyed just a week ago. But then real life takes hold. Big, bold, sweeping resolutions are set-ups for failure. Be realistic about your life and articulate goals that you can live with and achieve. For example, vowing to swear off something that you love or find incredibly convenient (be it fine wine or Uber rides) isn’t a resolution that’s likely to last. Instead consider compromises that you can live with all year long, such as trimming your wine budget by one-third or opting for public transportation during the work week and Ubering only on weekends.
Pledge to change in a vague way. Now that you’ve got a realistic goal or two, create a specific, detailed action plan. For example, rather than saying you’ll save money, say that you’ll increase your retirement contribution by $1,200 a year. Or rather than saying you’ll spend less, say that you’ll cut $30 a week from your grocery bill or limit yourself to one Starbucks a week.
Don't bother tracking your progress. Not doing something (like spending or eating) is far more difficult than doing something. We do better when we can take action. Therefore, activate your goals by doing things like writing them down or using tools that will help you see your progress. For example, apps and websites like Mint.com can be set-up to automatically upload credit cards, loans, investments, property, savings and checking accounts so that you can see what you’re spending, set up a budget and track your progress.
Focus on the negative. Don’t shame or label your self in a negative way -- such as a “problem spender” or “bad with money.” Shaming and negativity backfire by inspiring self-doubt and guilt, which sabotages the resolve necessary to implement your plan. Focus instead on the positive characteristics you have that will aid you instead -- such as flexibility, eagerness to learn new habits, or wisdom. Speaking of wisdom, we do tend to get wiser with age. You might have once indeed been “bad with money,” but you’re older and wiser now. Give yourself a break, as well as the opportunity to see yourself in a new light. This approach will increase your chances of successfully seeing resolutions through.
Expose yourself to temptation. If your downfall is the after work get-together at the local bar, suggest other activities like getting together at someone’s home. If shopping is the culprit, cut off those email blasts and avoid the mall. Our resolve diminishes the more we’re forced to say “no,” so avoid situations where you have to choose. Similarly, wherever you can, set up automatic savings or contribution plans to avoid the temptation of spending.
New Year’s resolutions are hard enough to abide by when they're made in the right way. So don't make your job more difficult. The start of a new year brings with it a prime opportunity to jettison past baggage and see ourselves in a new light. By setting realistic, specific, actionable goals and arming yourself with new tools and a positive attitude, you'll increase the likelihood of making changes that are truly for the better and that last for the long haul—or at least past Valentine's Day.
Kit Yarrow, Ph.D., is a consumer psychologist who is obsessed with all things related to how, when and why we shop and buy. She conducts research through her professorship at Golden Gate University and shares her findings in speeches, consulting work, and her books, Decoding the New Consumer Mind and Gen BuY.