Six Psychologist-Approved Tips for Keeping New Year’s Resolutions

Use this expert advice to actually keep your goal past the February doldrums.

New Year's resolution

It happens every year. In January, gyms across the city are packed with New Year’s resolutioners; by February, year-round fitness fans once again have their pick of the treadmills.

Sound familiar? It doesn’t have to. We asked Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychology professor at Northeastern University, for advice about keeping New Year’s resolutions.

1. Make it realistic.

You’ve likely heard this one before, but Barrett emphasizes that lofty goals are far likelier to get abandoned than specific ones. “Instead of thinking, ‘I’m going to lose 10 pounds,’ think to yourself, ‘I’m going to try to lose half a pound a week’—which means you’re going to have to keep it up for 20 weeks, which is a much more specific, behavior-based kind of goal,” she says.

2. Plan ahead.

It sounds obvious, but Barrett says it’s important to remember that your mental state when you make your goal isn’t necessarily the same one you’ll have a month, or even a week, later. “Try to remember that you’re making the resolution in one state—whether it’s a well-rested state, or a sleep-deprived state, or a hungry state, or a well-satiated state—and when that state changes, it’ll be a little harder for you to keep your resolution,” she says. “Try to anticipate what those states will be like, and what you’re going to do, behaviorally, to keep yourself on track.”

3. Implement a reward system, but don’t punish yourself.

Good news: Barrett says research shows that rewarding good choices actually changes behavior better than punishing bad choices. She suggests easy rewards like putting $1 toward a big purchase every time you go to the gym.

4. Find a friend—or don’t.

One resolution doesn’t fit all. Think about how you like to do things, and tailor your goal around that. “If you’re the kind of person who is very affiliative, try to make your resolutions involve other people. If you’re somebody who really appreciates time alone, then try to work that into your resolution,” she says. “If you make not just meeting the resolution rewarding, but actually doing the action rewarding, that’s going to keep you doing it for longer.”

5. Change the context around your resolution.

Vowing to improve your nutrition while still going out to eat every night is an uphill battle. Barrett recommends changing not just your behavior, but its setting. “Changing your behavior while the context stays the same is very challenging,” she says.

6. Don’t forget the good stuff.

Resolutions, logically, usually stem from necessary lifestyle changes—but Barrett says not to lose sight of what’s going right. “Focusing a lot on what you need to change about yourself, or about your life, can sometimes lead people to miss what they should be really grateful for,” she says. “Being mindful of how you can improve your life is a really valuable thing, but only in the context of also being mindful of what you should be grateful for.”