By Dr. Stacie Stephenson
Most people have made a New Year’s resolution (or hundreds of them) over the years, and in most cases, the resolutions are forgotten by February. According to a 2020 survey by researchers in Sweden and the U.K., just over half of the people who made New Year’s resolutions kept them for a full year. For 11 percent, the resolutions lasted six months, for 14 percent, three months, for 29 percent, one month, and for 11 percent, less than a month.
Depending on where you look and who you ask, those numbers can be even more dismal—by some accounts, 91 percent of people fail at their resolutions, and most throw in the towel by February (January 17 has been called “Ditch New Year’s Resolution Day”).
Sticking with goals isn’t easy. Ask anyone who has tried to drop 20 pounds, quit smoking or start a running program. Is there any hope? Of course! You can change your life for the better in whatever way you choose. It’s your life, and only you get to decide how well you take care of yourself. Many people have been successful, and the odds are more likely to be in your favor with a few simple tweaks.
Start, Don’t Stop
First, your goals for the new year are more likely to stick if they are about doing rather than quitting. The 2020 survey mentioned above found that action-oriented resolutions were more successful (58.9 percent) than deprivation-oriented ones (47.1 percent), so think about what you want to do, not what you want to stop doing, for a better chance at success.
For example, instead of saying you want to quit
eating sugar, you could decide that you want to start eating more vegetables or have a big salad for lunch on most days. If you want to lose weight, instead of focusing on shedding pounds, you might be more successful concentrating on behaviors that could support that goal, like taking a brisk walk in the mornings, or replacing sweets with fruit.
If you really want to quit something, like smoking or drinking alcohol, you may have better luck directing your attention to what you are going to do to replace those behaviors. Rather than “Don’t smoke,” it might be more beneficial to think in terms of finding a new hobby you love that uses your hands (knitting? drawing? Sudoku?) Rather than “quit drinking,” you could decide to make your own mocktails, or explore the many new varieties of nonalcoholic beers, wines and spirits. You could become a connoisseur of flavored seltzers or herbal teas.
Meanwhile, instead of going cold turkey on January 1, many people find it easier to calibrate down. I recommend trying the Rule of Halves. If you typically have three or four glasses of wine in the evenings, try cutting back to two glasses. Stay there until that feels like enough, then cut that amount in half, going down to one glass. Eventually you can cut that to half a glass, and finally, phase it out completely. This can also work with smoking, caffeine and sweets. Half feels less punishing and restrictive than none at all, and you’ll be less likely to feel severe side effects as you ease out of the behavior you want to quit.
Get a Buddy
The 2020 study I mentioned above also found that those who had support from someone else were also more likely to stick to their resolve. Accountability is key. It’s one thing to decide to make a change, then scrap the idea because nobody but you knew about it. It’s another thing to bail on a promise to yourself if you also made that promise to someone else, or at least asked for them to check up on your progress.
Chances are, a friend or partner has goals, too. Tell each other about what you want to achieve, make a plan, and check in regularly to see how the other is doing. Setting a good example or engaging in a little healthy competition can help keep you on track.
Make a Promise, Not a Resolution
Resolutions sound fun, something to ask people about at parties, but possibly are predestined to fail—why else would there be a “Ditch New Year’s Resolution Day”? A promise, on the other hand, sounds more personal and may be more closely tied to your emotions, which gives them more power.
Instead of making New Year’s resolutions this year, I suggest making New Year’s promises to yourself or someone else. The difference between “I resolve to eat more vegetables” and “I promise myself I will eat more vegetables” is subtle but meaningful. Promising to do something sounds more like you have a personal stake in doing what you say. Changing your resolutions to promises might make all the difference.
What Will You Promise?
A 2022 poll of over 1,000 U.S. adults, conducted by Forbes Health, found that the most popular resolutions were to improve mental health, improve fitness, lose weight, improve diet and improve finances. You may already have some things in mind you would like to change. I have some suggestions that inspire me for 2024. See if any of these inspire you:
Commit to giving back. If you like the idea of giving back, what do you promise to do this year? What do you have to give, and who will be the recipient? It could be money, or time, or your own creativity. I focus my philanthropy on cancer research (especially through Gateway for Cancer Research), as well as children’s welfare. For example: “I promise to give $10 every month” to a cause that is important to you, or “I promise to spend one hour per week volunteering” at a place that needs your help or expertise.
Make time, don’t “find” it. We are all busy, and it’s easy to make that an excuse for not doing something you resolved to do (and it’s easy to put yourself last). If you want to take a 30-minute walk every day, or spend 30 minutes writing in your journal or meditating, find that 30 minutes. That might mean getting up 30 minutes earlier or cutting out 30 minutes of TV time or social media scrolling.
The time I found that has made the most impact for me is the 15 minutes I take for myself each morning and evening, meditating, contemplating, planning, or just daydreaming in peace and solitude—a must for new moms, in my opinion! This has changed my life so much that I wrote a book about how to do it. Glow: 90 Days to Create Your Vibrant Life From Within features three months of morning and evening meditations, motivations, inspirations and mantras.
What do you want to find time for? Make a vow: “I promise to spend 15 minutes every morning and evening” doing that thing you never seem to have time to do.
Slow down and breathe. Life is fast, and sometimes the best remedy for all that rushing around is to slow down. In this modern world of instant gratification and 24/7 digital access, chronic stress is almost assumed.
When we go fast and everything feels like an emergency, that triggers the sympathetic nervous system to engage—the so-called fight-or-flight mode. We go into that mode for purposes of survival (think of a gazelle who must outrun a lion), but stress is supposed to be temporary. When the gazelle escapes, she goes right back to eating grass, as if nothing happened. The parasympathetic or rest-and-digest mode is supposed to be our default state. However, most humans are in fight-or-flight mode most of the time. It’s no wonder people have so much trouble relaxing, falling asleep or even taking a minute for themselves.
The good news is, you can purposefully engage your parasympathetic nervous system simply by slowing down and taking deep breaths. I recommend a technique I call beauty breathing (which I talk about in my first book, Vibrant: A Groundbreaking Program to Get Energized, Own Your Health, and Glow), because it engages the rest-and-digest mode, and everyone looks more beautiful when they are calmer. To try beauty breathing, stop what you are doing, set a timer for five minutes, and follow these steps:
Inhale slowly and as fully as possible to a slow count of four.
Hold your breath for a slow count of five.
Exhale slowly and as fully as possible for a slow count of eight.
Hold your breath after the exhale for a slow count of two.
Repeat until your five minutes are up.
Can you do this every day? “I promise to spend five minutes every day slowing down and breathing deeply.”
Appreciate abundance. Earlier in this article, I told you that resolving to do something, rather than quit something, increases your chances for success. You can enhance this effect by creating a promise that isn’t just about doing something, but about celebrating the abundance of that thing. I love that word, abundance, because it implies that there is always enough. Whatever it is you want to bring into your life, think of it with an abundance mentality and watch it grow.
Do you want to enjoy the abundance of colorful and healthful vegetables available to you? The abundance of beauty in the natural world that you get to experience every time you take a walk outside? The abundance of what your body can do every time you have a really good yoga class or sweat session? The abundance of love available to you when you prioritize the people who mean the most to you?
Everyone has abundance in some aspect of their lives. When you focus on all the many things you have and all the many things you can do, rather than what you don’t have or think you must give up, your promises become joyful and exciting. How about: “I promise to take a moment every day to appreciate the abundance in my life.”
Change in small steps. People often make multiple resolutions and then get overwhelmed, or they try to force changes that are too drastic. When people take on a flurry of changes on January 1, it’s no wonder they give up by February. It’s too much. We are set in our ways and habits, and it takes some concentrated attention to change what we are so used to doing. Taking small steps and working on one actionable change at a time is much more effective and likely to stick over the long term.
A slew of bestselling books in the past few years have focused on the power of making small changes for big, transformational shifts. I also found this to be true when I was in private practice, advising my patients on lifestyle changes. I suggest choosing one solemn promise to make to yourself in the new year. Stick to it for a month or two. When it becomes a habit and doing it feels like second nature, then you can move on to the next change.
About halfway through the year, look back to see how far you’ve come. Are you ready to make more changes? Do you want to make sure your new habits stay intact? It’s better to make one positive change over the long term than 10 changes that only last for two weeks. The small things we do over time create life-changing shifts.
I hope I’ve given you a new perspective on how doable new year’s changes really can be. All it takes is a little planning, a little positivity and a promise. drstaciestephenson.com