Did you make a resolution this year that will bring you more health and happiness? If so, good for you! Just the act of making a New Year’s resolution makes you 10 times more likely to bring about positive changes in your life.

But of course, to reap all the benefits of your resolution, you’ve got to follow through on it—and that’s always the trickiest part. Fortunately, research on resolutions offers some helpful tips for turning resolutions into reality. Here are some key insights from this research, divided into categories that reflect the range of post-New Year’s resolution states.

If you made New Year’s resolutions, but you haven’t acted on them yet…

1. Pare down your list of resolutions to just one easy thing. Science clearly suggests that you have a limited supply of willpower each day, and unless you are doing nothing other than keep your resolutions, you probably don’t have the psychological will you need to deal with your life AND keep up with a long list of lofty resolutions. Better to aim a little lower but then actually accomplish something. What one small thing do you want to do differently this year?

2.    Be really specific about what you’d like to achieve. John Norcross, a University of Scranton researcher who has studied New Year’s resolutions for the last 30 years, says “If you can’t measure it, it’s not a very good resolution.” Maybe you resolved to get more exercise, and you haven’t really done much on this front. In that case, specify how you will get more exercise—e.g., resolve to take the stairs every morning and evening, or to go to the gym twice a week.

3.    Pre-commit to your resolutions. Like Odysseus chaining himself to the mast while sailing past the Sirens, sometimes we need extreme measures to keep ourselves from temptation. Yale researchers created a website where you can make a contract with yourself to keep your resolution (stickK.com). I love this website, and recommend it highly. On stickK, you can even name a referee who will enforce financial penalties if you stray from your resolution—and if you do find such an enforcer, evidence suggests, you dramatically increase your odds of success.

If you had a strong start, but you are starting to falter…

1.    Remember that there is a world of difference between lapse and relapse. A lapse is a small slip in behavior, and nearly everyone has them. Most people slip here and there a lot in January. A relapse is a full fall: You give up, you go back to your pre-resolution behavior.

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If you’ve had a few slips, ask yourself why. What can you learn from your mistakes? Were you on vacation? (That’s always hard.) Do you not have a specific enough plan for how to fulfill your resolution? What temptation or situation should you avoid in the future? Remember: Lapses are to be expected. They are a part of the process. Don’t freak out or give up if you have a bad day here or there.

2.    Beware the “what the hell effect.” It’s really important not to let a temporary lapse become something bigger than it is. Say you’ve sworn off sugar, but one morning you eat a pie for breakfast. You’re at risk for what researchers formally call the Abstinence Violation Effect (AVE), and jokingly call the “what the hell effect.” If you’ve already blown your diet today, why not go hog wild? What the hell—you can begin again tomorrow, right?

Wrong. The more damage you do during your binge, the more likely you are to slip again the next day, and the less confidence you’ll have in yourself that you can change. As soon as you notice a slip, try the following to avoid getting to that “what the hell” moment:

● Forgive yourself. Remind yourself that lapses are a part of the process, and that feeling guilty or bad about your behavior will not increase your future success. (In fact, self-criticism actually decreases future success.)

● Rededicate yourself to your resolution (now, in this instant, not tomorrow). Why do you want to make the changes that you do? How will you benefit? Do a little deep breathing and calm contemplation of your goals.

● Make a plan for the next time you will face a similar challenge. What will you do differently? How will you avoid the temptation in the future? What have you learned from your slip?

3.    Step up your pre-commitments. See number 3 on the previous list—and figure out what you need to pre-commit to more fully!

If you are keeping your resolutions, and you’re looking strong…

Good for you! See your progress as evidence of your commitment, values, and routines—not necessarily as evidence that you’ve become a better person. Often when we are doing really well, we feel so good about ourselves we relax our vigilance and unknowingly set ourselves up for a slip. We can prevent a slip AND feel good about ourselves by consistently re-committing to our resolutions.

Most importantly, persist. This week is an important one for resolvers, according to resolution researcher John Norcross. If you can keep your resolution for the rest of January, you’ll be much more likely to end the year still keeping your resolution. Best of luck!

What did you resolve this year? How is it going?

© 2013 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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