New Year’s resolution pro-tip: Aim really, really low

There is nothing magical about the new year that makes it easy to achieve lofty goals.
There is nothing magical about the new year that makes it easy to achieve lofty goals.
Image: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
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It’s that time of year again. Over the holidays, you’ve convinced yourself that it’s time to make some major life changes, and in the happy haze of what remains of your vacation days, no bar seems too high. You’re fully prepared to leave this version of yourself behind—no, not yet, one more holiday cookie for now—but once the clock strikes midnight on January 1, everything will change: You’ll be better, fitter, more confident, and altogether more together in the New Year.

Unfortunately, you are setting yourself up to fail. Psychologists, brain researchers, and advice columnists all agree: If you want to be successful, you must aim low. Very, very low.

Writes Susan Weinschenk, a behavioral psychologist, in Psychology Today:

You MUST pick a small action. “Get more exercise” is not small. “Eat healthier” is not small. This is a big reason why New Year’s resolutions don’t work. If it’s a habit and you want a new one it MUST be something really small. For example, instead of “Get more exercise” choose “Walk 1/3 more than I usually do” or “Take the stairs each morning to get to my office, not the elevator,” or “Have a smoothie every morning with kale in it.”

Weinschenk notes that small resolutions are better than big ones because of how habits form. It’s necessary to repeat an action frequently in order to establish it as a habit, so you want to make the new action as easy to actually complete as possible.

Psychologist Lynn Bufka speaking to the American Psychological Association, offered similar advice: “Setting small, attainable goals throughout the year, instead of a singular, overwhelming goal on January 1 can help you reach whatever it is you strive for,” she said. “Remember, it is not the extent of the change that matters, but rather the act of recognizing that lifestyle change is important and working toward it, one step at a time.”

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that the promise of a massive payoff (like the satisfaction of completing a marathon) wasn’t as motivating in terms of sticking to goal-related activities (running) as small rewards along the way (patting yourself on the back for achieving the goal of running at least five minutes every day). In other words, setting yourself up to achieve small goals makes it more likely that you’ll stick with your program.”Thankfully, massive goals can happily co-exist alongside smaller ambitions and triumphs as we go along,” writes Holly Parker, a psychology lecturer at Harvard University, commenting on the 2017 study.

Setting smaller goals this year doesn’t mean that you aren’t ambitious. It means that instead of creating a lofty fantasy, you’ve created a realistic plan that you can actually achieve.