How to Make a New Year’s Resolution You Will Actually Keep

5 minute read

We’ve all made those sweeping, drastic resolutions that fizzle out by February. I’m talking about resolving to get up early and work out every day, and not eat any sugar, and cook at home every night, and stop drinking so much wine, and…

Here’s the deal: you know that all of the above are things you “should” do for your health, but trying to do them all at once is probably not the best idea for some people. Why? Perfection just isn’t possible, and the more pressure you put on yourself to make too many changes the more your resolutions may backfire. And that reality leaves you in the same place every year—stuck.

If this sounds familiar, this year you can break the pattern by using a “step ladder” approach, where each successful change builds on the next, and can all be maintained, for real this time! It may not feel as dramatic, but for many people it’s the best way to build lasting changes. Instead of burning out you’ll actually see real and lasting progress. Ready? Here are the four key steps.

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Identify your “domino”

What I mean by this is the one behavior that affects others the most. For example, some of my clients tell me that alcohol is their domino, because drinking leads to both giving into unhealthy eating, and skipping the gym. Others tell me it’s dining out, because they wind up eating more at restaurants, and maybe having a drink or two, which they don’t tend to do when they cook at home. For some it’s skipping breakfast, because it leads to nibbling more all day, feeling too hungry to go to the gym, and overeating at night. Basically identify the one behavior that helps you stay in the healthiest space (or the one unhealthy habit that causes everything to unravel), and make just that one your focus to start.

Seek out support

Once you’ve zeroed in on your target up your chances of success by identifying the things that will help make following through easier. If your domino is working out (because when you work out you’re more likely to eat healthfully, drink less, etc.) make a list of all the things that boost the chances that you’ll fit exercise in, and all of the things that tend to get in the way, so you can find ways to circumvent them.

For example, if workouts cut into your social time recruit a workout buddy. If you find exercise boring sign up for a class that sounds fun, like a dance workout, instead of that tedious elliptical. If you struggle to find time to work out make peace with fitting it in when you can, rather than the all or nothing. (“If I can’t do a full workout I’ll skip it.”) Just doing things like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or carving out 15 minutes from your lunch break to walk really add up day after day.

The idea here is to make the one domino goal you’ve set really work, because it’s like your weight loss and wellness linchpin—if it falls apart chances are other healthy habits will go with it.

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Plan a weekly progress report

Note that I didn’t say a weekly weigh-in. Don’t worry about what the scale says right now. Instead, sit down each week to assess how your domino goal is going. Take an honest look at what’s going well, and identify what you can work on during the upcoming week to best support your goal.

When things are going well celebrate your progress in healthy ways (a new kitchen tool or healthy cookbook if you’re cooking at home, a new workout outfit if exercise is your goal are some ideas). And if you’re stumbling don’t beat yourself up. Change isn’t always easy or linear. Sometimes you do take two steps forward and one step back, but to get to your destination the key is to keep going.

No matter what, don’t stop looking for new ways to stay motivated: set up an inspirational Pinterest board, chronicle your journey on a blog or social media, or plan a fun trip that ties in with your goal, like a girlfriend getaway to a spa, a healthy cooking class, or a hiking trip.

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Slowly build on your foundation

Once your domino really feels like your new normal strategically add new goals, one at a time, with the same degree of attention and patience. If your inner voice tells you you’re not doing enough, talk right back, and remind yourself of the times when taking on too much led to giving up. I’ve had many clients focus on nutrition first, and then only add exercise once they’ve really settled into a consistent healthy eating pattern. And guess what? They stuck with each one, whereas taking on the two simultaneously in the past led to ditching them both. If that’s happened to you make ‘slow and steady’ your mantra this year. By giving yourself the room to move at your own pace you just might find that come next December you don’t feel the need to make any resolutions at all for 2017!

Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian.

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