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How to create and keep your New Year’s resolution

To make a New Year’s resolution you can stick to, use these tips and strategies from mental health and fitness experts to reach your goal.

It’s almost time for another year — which means it’s time to start thinking about New Year’s resolutions.

Why do so many people spend the first days of January resolving to kick a bad habit or start a new routine?

“The closure of the previous year and beginning of the new one is generally a great place to start resolutions because it is a transition point,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, a family and relationship psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, Calif., and author of The Self-Aware Parent. “Transitions mean letting go of the old and beginning the new.”

To make the kind of New Year’s resolution you can stick to, choose one that you truly want to work toward. Then, figure out how to turn your target into a habit, reward your successes, and be ready to adapt your goal as the year progresses.

Here’s how to craft the kind of New Year’s resolution that will last the entire year — and, maybe, the rest of your life.

Make an action-based resolution that reflects a core value

What kind of New Year’s resolution are you most likely to achieve? According to the mental health and fitness experts, you should be trying to set positive, action-based ones that reflect your core values.

If you want to improve your health and fitness in the upcoming year, for example, it’s better to pick a resolution centered around how you feel in your body than one tied to a clothing size or a number on a scale. “A successful fitness goal is one of internal value,” Angela Leigh, senior director of fitness and talent at Aaptiv, explains. “Weight is a number. How you feel at the weight is more relevant to your emotional health.”

In other words: Instead of making a resolution linked to a specific weight, resolve to exercise for at least 45 minutes three times a week and keep your refrigerator stocked with healthy foods. Instead of resolving to sleep for at least seven hours every night, decide to give yourself an eight-hour sleep opportunity, six days a week.

Do you see the difference? These resolutions — the kind that are based on actions you can take, not outcomes that are difficult to control — will improve your life regardless of whether or not you hit a specific number (of pounds, reps, sleep hours, dollars saved, etc.). You’ll feel good because you’ve made positive, health-affirming choices, not bad because you fell slightly short of an arbitrary numerical goal.

Lastly, make sure your resolutions reflect what you will do this year, not what you won’t do. “I will pack my lunch three times a week” is better than “I will stop buying lunch at work.” As Walfish puts it: “These are things we’re excited to do this year, things we’ll be so proud to have accomplished, things that will make our lives better, more interesting, more stable, more fun.”

Plan how you’ll achieve your resolution

Your resolution is only as good as your plan of action. If you want to spend more time exercising, for example, should you work out in the morning, or at night? You won’t know until you take a look at your schedule and start blocking off time for your new exercise habit — and as Leigh reminds us, spending more time exercising might mean spending less time doing something else.

So get strategic. Decide what you’re going to do, and, if necessary, decide what you’re going to give up to ensure it gets done. “You can’t simply decide to change without a long-term plan and safety net in place,” Walfish says. That applies whether you’re hoping to build your side hustle, practice meditation, or set up a weekly family game night. You need a plan, and then you need a contingency plan to implement when life gets in the way.

Here’s Leigh’s example of a contingency plan for people who are trying to maintain healthy eating habits: “If you know you cave in social situations when it comes to food or alcohol consumption, eat before you meet your friends or skip the alcohol completely.”

Depending on your resolution, you might want to start cooking in bulk to anticipate nights when you’re too busy to make dinner. Or use an excellent at-home workout program, such as Aaptiv, to find the time to exercise regularly. Or perhaps set aside one afternoon a month to make up any family game nights that got skipped due to school events or other conflicts.

Give yourself rewards when you succeed

Once you start successfully carrying out your resolution, reinforce the behavior with rewards. Yes, we all know that exercise and healthy eating and more sleep and quality time with family are their own rewards, but you can also enjoy external rewards like buying a new workout top, splurging on the fancy cheese, or checking a new board game out from the library.

Walfish suggests that you reward yourself as quickly and as often as possible. “Give yourself daily or weekly small rewards versus waiting until the end of the month.” Even something as simple as tracking your progress on an app or putting a gold star on a calendar can motivate you to keep going.

Don’t punish yourself for slipping up

Even with the best-laid plans (and contingency plans) in place, there will still be days when we don’t live up to our resolutions. When that happens, Walfish advises us to avoid punishing ourselves. Instead, we should forgive ourselves, accept that we are human, and continue working towards whatever it was we resolved to do.

“Know ahead of time how you will deal with falling off the wagon,” Walfish explains. “If you cheat on your diet plan, how will you get back on as quickly as possible?” If it’s the right kind of resolution, your life will get a little worse when you give it up — and that should be enough of an incentive to help you fit the behavior back into your day-to-day routine.

Adjust your resolution if necessary

As the year progresses, pay attention to how your resolutions are fitting into your life. Are they making your life better, or do they feel less like something you want to do and more like something you thought you should do? Maybe meditation isn’t your thing. Perhaps everyone in your family has come to dread the weekly game night. If a goal isn’t working for you, you’ll know — and that’s okay.

Leigh and Walfish both advise resolution-makers to be honest with themselves, and be ready to adapt and adjust their goals as the year proceeds. Maybe you’d rather sign up for a meal kit subscription than make a healthy dinner from scratch every night, for example. Or perhaps you discovered that you hate cooking, and you’d instead reconfigure your budget to put more money toward healthy takeout options.

“It really is about the process of change more than the change itself,” Leigh says. As long as you’re continuing to work towards your core values, it doesn’t matter how you get there. You can eat nutritious foods even if you don’t cook, improve your physical fitness even if you can’t make it to the gym, and spend quality time with your family even if none of you like board games.

You should also be aware when you’ve made a resolution that doesn’t actually reflect your core values. “It doesn’t matter what you think you want,” Walfish explains. “The truth of your underlying wants and needs will always happen.” If you tell yourself you’re going to read 52 books next year but you actually want to spend your free time rewatching The Office, you might only read three or four books before you start finding excuses to swap your reading habit for your streaming habit.

“Discover your own truth,” Walfish advises. “Nurture and respect it.”

And then resolve to affirm it, no matter what the new year brings.

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Nicole Dieker is a full-time freelance writer. Her work regularly appears on Bankrate, Lifehacker, The Write Life and numerous other sites. She is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales. Opinions are those of the author or the person interviewed.

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About Nicole Dieker

Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelance writer since 2012, with a focus on personal finance and habit formation. In addition to Haven Life, her work regularly appears at Lifehacker, Bankrate, CreditCards.com, and Vox. Dieker spent five years as a writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money, and is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales.

Read more by Nicole Dieker

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