Self-improvement through New Year’s resolutions is a noble effort, but sometimes our desire for radical change backfires when we try to do too much at once.

Popular resolutions include vowing to lose weight, eat better, spend less money, and enjoy life to the fullest, according to research firm Nielsen. Unfortunately, many people fail to achieve their New Year’s resolutions, and the seed of that ill-fated effort is often found in the months preceding January 1.

Take, for example, Nielsen’s surveys of people from January 2015. Although 43% of respondents said they wanted to lose weight by eating healthier, 76% of those healthy hopefuls didn’t follow any sort of nutrition program in 2014. People want to make healthy shifts, but believe they can do it all at once, without any sort of preparation.

These plans sound idealistic and wonderful, but excessive optimism often leads to failure. Losing weight and getting fit are not only the most frequently made New Year’s resolutions, they’re also the most commonly broken, according to Time magazine.

We’re not trying to get you down, only helping you to have a more realistic view of the work ahead. Losing weight, eating healthy, and living a more joyful life are all within reach, but require a specific approach that increases the odds of success so your hopes don’t end up deflated on the floor like a balloon after the party ends.

1. Think small for your resolutions

The idea of making grand change is inspiring. The vision lifts you up as you imagine the person you’ve always wanted to be. But big changes are also intimidating. It’s difficult to make sweeping life changes, and this is why people often fail.

Instead of making broad New Year’s resolutions like “get fit,” instead vow to hit the gym for 30 minutes, three times each week. Start out slow, and allow yourself to warm up to the new habit, expanding over time. Or instead of “eat healthy,” decide to eat a piece of fruit with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Making small changes helps bypass the natural fear reaction. They elicit less internal resistance and are easier to maintain. If you happen to fall off the wagon for a week, it’s easier to get back on.

2. It’s okay to backtrack

People often make goals, work hard to keep those goals for a few weeks or months, and then inevitably slide away from the persistence that’s somehow easier at the start. Consider that it’s okay to get off track because every day is a new day. Every week is a new opportunity to start again.

If you vow to go to the gym thrice weekly but skip a few weeks, it’s okay to start over at any time. You don’t have to classify the effort as a failure and wait until next New Year’s to begin again.

3. Prepare to succeed

Although vision is important for making change, it’s equally important to prepare. Use your past failures as fuel for the fire. Think of all the excuses you tell yourself and work in advance to devise a game plan.

If you want to eat vegetarian three nights each week but never know what to cook, research blogs with delicious dishes so you have a few easy references. Or invest in a few cookbooks with recipes that are easy to prepare and taste good.

If you know that you hate kale or dishes with exotic ingredients that you have to buy at a special store that’s 30 minutes away, buy a cookbook full of accessible dishes that aren’t complicated or so special. Be true to you.

If you want to start exercising, but know that not having the right equipment has been an obstacle in the past, buy yourself a pair of nice athletic shoes or good-looking outfit for the holidays. Having fresh gear can be a great motivator.

Alternatively, if you don’t like the idea of shelling out the cash for a gym membership and always vow to run outside, but then realize you dislike the cold and end up promising yourself you’ll run come spring, understand this about yourself, and then find the money for a gym membership.

4. Plan the specifics

Many goals lack specificity, and vague goals are easy to miss. When you’re creating new habits, there exists a space between your current habits and the potential for the new. In that space, if you’re not sure which direction to go, it’s hard to select a healthy behavior simply because it’s not a habit yet.

It’s not that we don’t want to do better for ourselves, but often we don’t know what to do, and in that confused space, we move toward what we know unless we have clear guidelines otherwise. So plan ahead.

Decide in advance which days of the week you’ll work out, or which days of the week you’ll eat vegetarian. Then backtrack and decide what you need to do to meet that goal. Do you need to decide which recipe you’ll eat on Sunday so you have time to go to the grocery store? Do you need to take a snack to work so you can head directly to the gym after work?

Invest the energy to figure out the ways you’ll need to support yourself in these new habits. Outline a specific schedule so all you have to do is follow the rules you’ve set for yourself.

5. Change how you think of yourself

One of the reasons it can be so difficult to change habits is because of the way we think of ourselves. We characterize ourselves as someone who is out of shape or someone who eats unhealthy food.

How can someone who is out of shape be going to the gym all the time? So we disappoint ourselves because there’s a part of us that doesn’t believe it’s possible for us to change, based only on our self-perception. So change how you think about yourself.

You are now a person who is getting into shape, a person who is working to eat healthy. This sounds like a small distinction, but it’s really powerful. Changing your mindset sometimes unlocks the key to more transformational change.

What are your tips for keeping New Year’s resolutions?

Image by Cherry Point via Flickr

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