According to a study by Steven Shapiro, author of Goal-Free Living, 45% of Americans usually set New Year’s resolutions, though just 8 % are successful in achieving them. That’s not to suggest that New Year’s resolutions are a waste of your time. In fact, they may just be the catalyst to real-life change. University of Scranton psychology professor, John Norcross, PhD, found that people who commit to making a change through a resolution are ten times more likely to succeed than those that don’t. However, there is a science to successful goal-setting and it starts by taking small baby steps that lead to big success.
Losing weight, exercising more, quitting smoking, improving finances and reducing stress are all popular New Year’s resolutions, but how do you make them stick? Researchers at California State University, Sacramento, have found that how you define your “mission” when goal-setting is paramount to achieving it. It starts by being specific about what you want to achieve, defining your goal in the present tense and establishing a clear “deadline” for each step needed to reach that goal. Success also involves taking note of your accomplishments and celebrating small victories. Here are ways to apply the goal-setting science to set small resolutions that will lead to big changes.
Resolution #1: Save More Money
Action Plan: Many people delay saving because they wait until they feel like they have enough money to save. The only perfect time to start saving is now, and the key to saving is to literally forget about a portion of your income. Until you establish the discipline not to spend, automatic savings plans (ASP) are the best place to start. Start by identifying a small portion of money that will go directly from your paycheck into an ASP and make the money hard to access by destroying any ATM or debit card associated with it. Because you’ll never see the money, you’re less likely to miss it.
As you adjust to your new savings behavior, keep advancing in small steps. Once you’ve conquered saving a small amount of money regularly, the next goal is to reduce spending, even if it’s just by ten percent, for three months. Start saving that amount as well. Once you’ve conquered that feat, go a little further, slashing spending by 15 or 20% for a few months, all of which you’ll also put in your savings account. Once you’ve established the discipline to save, set your sights bigger, like saving to buy a house or a car.
Resolution #2: Exercise More
Action Plan: Instead of aiming to simply “workout,” clearly define your plan of attack. For example, commit to going to the gym three times each week, for at least 30 minutes, for four weeks. Keep a calendar so you can literally schedule your workout and mark it off once you’ve completed it. Once you meet your goal, give yourself a little pat on the back and develop your next four-week challenge, adding five or ten more minutes to your workout, little by little. Fitness researchers found that defining goals in concrete terms, measuring progress and having a plan for going forward, leads not only to goal-attainment, but also to lasting behavior.
Resolution #3: Eat Better
Action Plan: Like fitness goals, you need a clear plan, like eliminating one processed food from dinner and replacing it a fresh vegetable. You can build from there to work the same strategy into breakfast and lunch. Just like a fitness plan, write down your successes and celebrate your achievements. Dr. Norcross also found that stimulus control is a key component in goal-achievement. For example, if you know that walking past your favorite bakery will lead you straight towards the empty carbs, take a different path. Likewise, negative goal-setting, like taping a picture of yourself at a weight you dislike on the refrigerator, doesn’t work either, so keep it positive.
Resolution #4: Take Better Care of Your Health
Action Plan: Start small and commit to flossing your teeth each night to prevent gum disease, which is linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Schedule a routine physical with your physician (to be completed by the end of January) and develop your next goal and baby steps from its findings. You can even make simple changes, like shutting down your electronics a half hour earlier at night to improve the quality of your sleep or drinking two more glasses of water each day.
Resolution #5: Decrease Stress
Action Plan: Commit to meditating for less than ten minutes each day. Doug Hanvey, teacher of mindfulness at Indiana University and author of The Mindfulness Diet, believes that despite many of the stereotypes around meditation, it only takes seven or eight minutes to start incorporating meditation into your daily routine, which can make marked improvements in your stress and attitude. Hanvey suggests sitting on a chair while keeping a straight posture to keep your mind alert. Focus your mind on the sensations of your breath as you inhale through the nose and mouth. When your mind wanders, bring your attention back to breathing.
While it may seem more challenging at first, try meditating in silence, rather than using background music to achieve a meditative state more quickly. Hanvey says many people get scared off by meditation because they believe the goal is to stop the mind and sit perfectly still in silence for a long period of time. The real goal of meditation is much simpler: To allow everything to be, in each moment, just as it is. Start small and build further, eventually incorporating a few refreshing yoga poses into your practice. Before you know it, you’ll have found a relaxing routine that allows you to decompress and appreciate your life more.
Stephanie Taylor Christensen is a former financial services marketer based in Columbus, OH. The founder of Wellness On Less, she also writes on small business, consumer interest, wellness, career and personal finance topics.