Broke your New Year’s resolution?

Here’s how to get back on track

Research shows that by this time each year, nearly 80% of people have abandoned their New Year’s resolutions. That’s too bad, especially since the overwhelming majority of resolutions are for some form of self-improvement, from losing weight to getting more exercise to saving money.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just because you’ve broken one or more of your New Year’s resolutions, doesn’t mean you should abandon them. Here’s an alternative:

Forgive yourself!

As I often say, “The road to success runs through failure.” There’s no way to live without failing. Failure is simply part of the process of growth and advancement. Think how many times you “failed” when you were learning to walk or talk. The only permanent “failure” would have been giving up.

So, if you’ve broken one or more of your New Year’s resolutions, don’t despair! Here are nine tips designed to get you back on track:

  1. Make a plan. It’s not much good to say you’re going to do something without giving your goal a structure. Want to learn to play an instrument or speak a language? Sign up for a class. Want to lose weight? Pick your program.
  2. Ask whether your goals are SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. Let’s take these one at a time:
    1. Specific. Rather than say, “I resolve to eat less meat,” or “to get more exercise,” or “to lose weight,” fill in the details: “This year, I’m going to practice Meatless Mondays.” Or, “This year, I resolve to get aerobic exercise three times a week.” Or, “This year, I resolve to lose 10 pounds.”
    2. Measurable. How will you measure your success? In the examples above, measurements are included: meatless Mondays, exercise three times a week, lose 10 pounds.
    3. Achievable. Is your resolution realistic in the given timeframe? One of my sayings is, “Don’t expect too much of yourself.” A big goal is great for motivation—say, you want to run a marathon. But then break your big goal down into smaller, more realistic milestones—like training three days a week and increasing your distance every week—and then forgive yourself if you occasionally slip. The key is to Start small but keep going!
    4. Relevant. Why is this goal meaningful to you? How does it further your larger life goals and objectives? Too often we “should” ourselves into a goal: we should lose weight. We should exercise more. Unfortunately, “should” is not very inspiring. What actually motivates you? You’ll be much more likely to accomplish a goal you’re excited about. (See #3 below.) Stay in touch with your passion!
    5. Time-based. Give yourself an ambitious, but realistic, timeframe. Maybe you can’t learn French in a week, but maybe you could understand a movie in French by the end of the year.
  1. Ask yourself WHY you’ve set this resolution. What is the benefit you are hoping to achieve? For example, people often say they want more money, but why? What is it that money will “buy” for you: Security? Freedom? A better living situation? The ability to travel? You may find that you are way more motivated by images of your dream home, or your dream vacation, than you are by the abstract thought of more money in your bank account.
  1. Visualize yourself already experiencing the benefits of your resolution. As best-selling author and effectiveness guru Stephen Covey said in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Begin with the end in mind” because “Through imagination, we can visualize the uncreated worlds of potential that lie within us.”
    Our minds are incredibly powerful. After all, that’s why the placebo effect works: our minds have the ability to heal our bodies when given a sugar pill that we are told will cure our disease. Consider also the professional athletes who train by imagining themselves succeeding at their events. Dr. David Hamilton tells the story of Olympian Sally Gunnell, who explained that winning gold was 70% mental. After failing to win at the 1991 world championships she started practicing visualization: seeing herself sprinting, hurdling, and crossing the finish line first. The connection between the use of imagery and successful performance has been well documented in other track and field events, golf, soccer, and weightlifting. One study, for example, showed that visualizing being stronger actually increased muscle strength. So, visualize—and feel yourself—already experiencing the accomplishment of your resolution.
  1. Write your resolutions down. Writing your goals down makes them real, anchors your intention, and gives you a reminder every time you look at them.
  1. Make it social. It’s much more rewarding—and successful—to share your goals and resolutions with friends. You’re essentially creating your own support group. That’s part of the reason 12-step programs and groups like Weight Watchers are so effective: peer pressure! And also, peer support!
  1. Identify the benefit you are currently getting from your undesirable behavior. If you set a resolution and break it, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It might just mean that you haven’t identified the reward you are getting from the behavior you hope to change and finding another way to get the same reward. For example, let’s say you look forward to “happy hour” at the end of the workday or week. If that’s your reward for another day or week of work, you’ll need to create a new way of rewarding yourself. It might be meeting friends for a walk in the park or on the beach, meeting the guys on the basketball court, or signing up for a yoga class right after work. In my work with patients, I’ve found that even unhealthy behaviors frequently have underlying motivations that are self-protective in some way. A man or woman who is afraid of intimacy, for example, may carry extra weight as a strategy for avoiding unwanted sexual attention. A teen who is under-performing at school might be doing so as a way to assert her independence from overly controlling parents. The bottom line is that people do things for a reason. It’s usually a good reason, even if it’s harmful behavior. If you can identify the reason behind your behavior and substitute a healthy behavior in its place, you’ll more easily keep your resolution.
  1. Celebrate even small successes. You’re building new habits. That takes time and can be difficult, especially at the beginning. So, honor yourself every time you take a step in your intended direction and build in plenty of rewards that are in alignment with your goals. Human beings tend to repeat activities that are rewarding!
  1. Be imperfect, live longer! Our quirky imperfections and repeated failures are included in the bundle of attributes that make us unique. Recognize that self-improvement is a lifelong goal that will never result in “perfection.” So what? You are a work in progress and worthy of celebrating every day!


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