Anna had wanted to run a marathon her whole life. But she could never find the courage and energy to pursue it.
She tried signing up for half-marathons, to help her prepare for the full distance. Anna was in relatively good shape, but she knew that a good training regimen was critical to success.
Despite her larger goal, she just didn’t find half-marathons motivating. For her, this shorter distance wasn’t something to be proud of, and seeing it as a step toward the full marathon wasn’t enough. As a result, she put off running a marathon for years.
As another year drew to a close, a friend asked her to sign up for a marathon together.
This was her chance.
She decided that despite her previous failures, she could do this. Setting her sights on the full marathon was more motivating, and now she had the support she needed to follow through. Excited, they both registered for the race on New Year’s Day.
They made a 16-week exercise plan and set personal goals for their marathon times. Anna’s goal range was 4:00-4:30.
There were weeks when Anna didn’t stick to the full exercise plan. But then she’d get back on track, going for 5, 10, or 15 mile runs. She came to love running so much that it became a desire rather than an obligation.
That fall, she ran the marathon with her friend, finishing at 4 hours and 20 minutes—an outstanding time for her first marathon.
Like Anna, 45 percent of people make New Year’s resolutions.
Unlike Anna, 92 percent of those people fail at their resolutions.
How can you be one of the success stories?
1 – Be ready to act
Resolutions work best when you are committed to the goal and ready to act[2,3]. If you’re not fully convinced of the importance of your resolution, then it’s unlikely you will see it through.
If you are ready to begin making major lifestyle changes, then plan for them. Are there places or situations you need to avoid to stick to your goal? Is there any equipment you need?
Once you’ve prepared to take action, look for a meaningful time to begin. This could be your birthday, a new month, or, yes, New Year’s.
Studies show that tying your resolution to such times helps give you a “fresh start.” By creating mental separation between your past failures and your hoped-for success, you’ll be more motivated to change[4,5].
2 – Learn from the past
Despite your fresh start and new goal, you are the same person you were before.
The downside? Whatever things prevented you from completing your goals in the past are likely to get in the way again. So, try to learn from what hasn’t worked.
The upside? You have many experiences accomplishing things in the past. Reflecting on these successes can boost confidence in your ability to change. When it comes to resolutions, building this confidence is one of the strongest predictors of success.
After figuring out how you can improve upon past efforts, spend some time reminding yourself of all the times you’ve succeeded in accomplishing something you cared about.
3 – Set a range, rather than a specific target
Have you ever committed to a goal, like losing 3 pounds a week, only to find that you became discouraged to the point of inaction when success didn’t seem possible anymore?
You’re not alone. Avoid this negative cycle by setting ranges—a high and low target—to allow yourself room for whatever surprises may come your way. So, if you wanted to lose 3 pounds a week, make a goal of 2-4 pounds instead.
4 – Get support
Studies show that social support increases goal persistence[3,8,9]. Consider inviting someone to join you in your effort.
If this isn’t possible, at least share your goal with friends and family. Consider posting on social media to make your goals more public.
But after sharing, remind yourself that the actual work of making progress toward the goal still lies ahead. Announcing your goal to others establishes the conditions for success and invites the support of others, but achieving success is still up to you.
By this point, you may be wondering: Is there any point making a resolution when so many fail, and there seem to be so many requirements for success?
Those who make New Year’s resolutions are much more likely to succeed at their goals than those who don’t.
So, go ahead and take advantage of a birthday or calendar change to make a resolution for yourself.
But to increase your chances of success, try to follow the research and Anna’s example. Make sure it’s something you’re ready to act on, build confidence by drawing upon lessons from your past, enlist social support, and set goals that allow a reasonable range for success.
1. New Years Resolution Statistics (2016). statisticbrain.com.
2. Norcross, J.C., Mrykalo, M.S., & Blagys, M.D. (2002). Auld lang syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58, 397-405.
3. Norcross, J.C., & Vangarelli, D. J. (1988). The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attempts. Journal of Substance Abuse, 1, 127-134.
4.Wilson, A.E., & Ross, M. (2001). From chump to champ: People’s appraisals of their earlier and present selves. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 572-584.
5. Dai, H., Milkman, K.L., & Riis, J. (2014). The fresh start effect: Temporal landmarks motivate aspirational behavior. Management Science, 60, 2563-2582.
6. Schunk, D.H. (1995). Self-efficacy, motivation, and performance. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 7, 112-137.
7. Scott, M.L., & Nowlis, S.M. (2013). The effect of goal specificity on consumer goal reengagement. Journal of Consumer Research, 40, 444-459.
8. Plante, T.G., Madden, M., Mann, S., & Lee, G. (2010). Effects of perceived fitness level of exercise partner on intensity of exertion. Journal of Social Sciences, 6, 50-54.
9. Nyer, P.U., & Dellande, S. (2010). Public commitment as a motivator for weight loss. Psychology & Marketing, 27, 1-12.
10. Fishbach, A., Dhar, R., & Zhang, Y. (2006). Subgoals as substitutes or complements: the role of goal accessibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 232-242.
11. Hofmann, W., & Nordgren, L.F. (Eds.). (2015). The psychology of desire. Guilford Publications.