Six tips to help you actually keep those New Year’s resolutions

We’re in our first full week of those sometimes spoken, sometimes written down, usually thought about resolutions. Yes, the chances are good, even if you don’t admit it, that you made some sort of “new start” commitment to yourself Jan. 1. Instead of doing a half-way job of it, why not make it stick?

Here are a few tips to keep you going.

1. Add new behavior; don’t change old ones. If you’re trying to change a behavior, which is what most people aim to do in some fashion or another, an effective way to think about it is that you’re actually not going to change a behavior so much as add one on. Eventually, the new behavior becomes the default, crowding out the old overeating-not-exercising-spending-all-my-money kinds of behavior. The brain doesn’t have the capability to create a neural pathway for stopping something. There is a mechanism in your head that leads to impulse control, but if yours is not working up to full speed, you’ll need to add behaviors that help you get around the bad ones.

2. Get creative to get new behaviors. If you’re trying to save more money because you spend almost all that you make, a creative tactic to get new adaptive behaviors would be to put your credit cards into a glass of water and put them in the freezer. You’ll have to think long and hard about whether you really need that new television. And that’s the behavioral goal (not learning to freeze things!) – to think long and hard before spending. The brain doesn’t really like to be disciplined, but once it gets used to you being the boss instead of it taking control all the time, it’ll pay attention to you. You just have to teach it … and sometimes be sneaky about it!

3. Select something reasonable and doable. Get used to success, not failure. Recent research out of MIT and Harvard shows that success breeds success while failure causes you to take no notice of the lesson, unless you deliberately override the natural tendency to put failure on ignore. Pick something you have a good chance of accomplishing. The idea of stretch goals stems from revenue and sales targets. They work tepidly in those situations and very rarely with behavioral goals. It’s OK to expect a little bit more than might be reasonable, but if you cross the line into absurd, a cool little organ in the brain called the BS monitor sounds an alarm and sets you up for failure.

4. Don’t compare yourself to others. Several years ago when I was a scrawny 20-something guy, my body-builder roommate, Mark, encouraged me to go to the gym with him. He wanted me to lift free weights with him. I had never done that before, not even with 10-pound dumbbells. After going to the gym a few times and fooling around on the cable equipment, I finally got up the nerve to join him. At the end of the workout, my arms were so pumped with blood; I literally couldn’t get them above my head to shampoo my hair. The last exercise we did was a bench press for the triceps; those evil little muscles behind your biceps that burn after only a few reps. Mark said I would only be lifting the 20-pound bar. As I was lying there, he excused himself very quickly to go to the restroom. Feeling cocky and rested, I attempted to lift the bar without him there. It came awkwardly crashing down on me. A Mister Universe, ripped-out-of-his-skin bodybuilder noticed what happened and came running to my rescue. He lifted the bar (with his pinky) and asked if I was OK. I told him other than my very embarrassed ego I was fine. He said something that resonates with me today: “What? Do you think I was born like this? You have to start somewhere, and it looks like you have”. Those words kept me going and do so today. Research shows the number one reason people give up on most goals is that they compare themselves to others who are more accomplished. Resist the urge. This is between you and the goal. Success always is.

5. Celebrate daily. That’s right; put a chart up on the wall. Go out and get yourself a box of those kindergarten sticky stars and put green on a calendar day for a step forward, yellow for staying in place and red for a step backward. You win some, you lose some. The goal is to win more than you lose. No matter what happens, celebrate that you’re still in the game. Celebrations can be the right to brag to a trusted pal, rewarding yourself with some kind of pleasure or treat you like, or research shows that even a simple acknowledgement that you’re still in it is enough for the brain to mark the event for success. There’s one thing for sure, you can’t win if you’re not playing.

6. Don’t go it alone. The most successful people have others who hold them accountable. Find an accountability buddy, get a mentor or pay a coach. Whatever you do, have someone who holds up the mirror with your goal nicely taped in the middle of it to remind you of your promise to yourself.

New Year’s resolutions are a form of hope, and hope leads to goals being met. They reacquaint you with yourself and just how much you’re willing to be disciplined with mostly only you watching. Remember this, and your resolutions will become yearly successes in your life: “The degree to which you keep your agreements with yourself is the degree to which your life will work.”

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