In this article, I’m going to show you 10 practical strategies from psychology that will help you stick with your New Year’s goals.
These are the same strategies and techniques I use with clients in my clinical practice. And over the years, they’ve helped hundreds of clients set and stick with meaningful and realistic New Year’s goals.
Importantly, this isn’t just another set of online self-help hacks. These are serious techniques based on well-established principles from psychology and behavioral science.
Okay, let’s dive in!
1. Choose a Goal, but Commit to a Routine
Here’s the single most important thing you need to know when it comes to setting good New Year’s goals and actually sticking with them:
You can’t do a goal. You can only do actions that eventually lead you to your goal.
Think about it…
- You can’t just lose 20 pounds. But you can commit to not taking a second helping at dinner each night which will eventually result in losing weight.
- You can’t just write a novel. But you can commit to writing 300 words every morning which will eventually lead to getting a novel written.
- You can’t just improve your relationship with your spouse. But you can commit to saying I love you each morning before you leave for work which will actually change the nature of your relationship.
This distinction between goals and the routines that lead to them is crucial for many reasons. But here’s the most important one:
Thinking about your goals is a great way to procrastinate on the actions that will actually lead you to your goal.
Thinking about which gym you want to join, researching jogging shoes, and watching inspiring YouTube videos of people who have lost tons of weight feels like work.
But it doesn’t actually move the needle much in terms of losing weight. And worse, it takes time and energy away from the actions and routines that will actually move you toward your goal:
- Running on the treadmill 3 times a week
- Walking around the block every evening after work
- Scheduling grocery shopping twice a week so you never “need” to eat out
Of course, it’s important to think carefully about your goals initially. But once you choose a goal, you actually shouldn’t think that much about it because it can very easily turn into a distraction from the real work that needs to be done.
When it comes to New Year’s goals take a “set it and forget it” approach so you can stay focused on the real work of building good routines—the only things that actually lead to goals being met (and maintained!) in the long run.
2. Pick Goals You Actually Enjoy Working Toward
You would think this one would be obvious…
It’s a lot easier to achieve your New Year’s goal if it’s something you at least kinda enjoy!
Unfortunately, many of us aren’t very creative about our New Year’s goals and end up choosing goals based primarily on what we think we have to do rather than what we want to do.
Well, yeah… Nobody LIKES exercising every day, but we have to do it to get in shape, right?
Okay, I admit that often our goals (and the routines that lead to them) aren’t always going to be 100% fun, exciting, and pleasurable. But they probably can be a lot more enjoyable than you think if you’re willing to get a little creative about how you work toward them.
I’ve worked with hundreds of people on goal-setting and if there’s one theme that stands out among the people who actually stick with and accomplish their goals it’s that they figure out a way to make them enjoyable.
Say your goal is to lose 15 pounds. And the routine you’ve committed to getting you there is working out in the gym five days a week. Well, running on the treadmill isn’t the only way to exercise. And it’s actually a terrible idea if you really dislike running.
The reason is pretty straightforward: You’ll never have much intrinsic motivation to do it if you hate it. You’ll always be “pushing” yourself and relying on willpower to make it happen. Which in the long run is not a sustainable strategy for doing anything (will power is a last resort!).
On the other hand, when you choose a form of exercise that you at least partially enjoy, there will be some intrinsic motivation to do it, which means less effort and discipline required.
So you might, for example, join a Zumba group if you like to dance, or a spin class if cycling is more your thing. Or maybe you try something like CrossFit that mixes and matches a lot of different exercises if variety and novelty are important to you.
Only intrinsic motivation lasts in the long run.
So be smart and creative about choosing goals where there’s at least some amount of enjoyment in the process leading up to them.
3. Align Your Goals with Your Values
Sticking with New Year’s goals is a tug-o-war between your aspirations and your feelings:
- You aspire to start going to the gym after work, but you feel like watching Netflix.
- You aspire to practice the guitar, but you feel like browsing Facebook instead.
- You aspire to be more patient with your kids, but you feel like yelling at them.
I use the tug-o-war metaphor because this is how motivation actually works: Your long-term aspirations are to move in one direction but your short-term feelings and desires pull you in another.
And while there are plenty of tips and tricks for resisting the pull of short-term desires, the better approach is to strengthen the motivating force of your aspirations.
I mean, think about it:
Wouldn’t it be nicer if your goals and aspirations pulled you toward them instead of feeling like you have to push yourself toward your goals all the time?
Sticking with challenging goals and aspirations is unlikely to ever be easy. But you can make it a lot less hard on yourself by increasing their motivational pull. And the way to do that… Aligning your goals with your values.
Values are your guiding principles—the why behind the goals.
- Your goal is to lose 20 pounds. Your value is being healthy.
- Your goal is to write a novel. Your value is expressing your creativity.
- Your goal is to be more honest with your partner. Your value is honesty.
The thing is, most of us are pretty vague about our values. And when values are vague, they don’t really help pull us toward our goals. On the other hand, the more specific and concrete our values, the more motivating force they exert on us in service of our goals.
Here’s a specific example:
I had a client once who’d been trying to lose weight for years. He’d make a little progress for a while, but then quickly fall back into bad habits that kept his weight at an unhealthy level.
One of the problems I saw was that his values—the why behind his goal—were pretty vague. He told me the reason he wanted to lose weight was because he knew he needed to “get healthy.” Of course, getting healthy is indeed a good reason. It’s just not a very compelling one.
As I explored more reasons why he wanted to lose weight, we eventually struck gold: He told me that one of the reasons—which hadn’t occurred to him until now—was that because he was so overweight, he wasn’t able to play much with his grandson. He got tired so quickly that he couldn’t even play catch with him for more than a couple minutes without getting winded.
But when I got my client to go into detail on how wonderful it would be to be able to play football with his grandson, go hiking, and a bunch of other activities, something clicked for him. All of a sudden his values had “teeth.” Because he could “touch and taste” them, they really started to motivate him and keep him motivated to do the hard work of losing weight and getting healthy.
When you clarify the values behind your goals, you give yourself a booster shot of motivation.
4. Use a Ulysses Pact to Resist Temptation
The Ulysses Pact is an old technique for holding yourself accountable to stick with a goal even when it’s hard.
Named for the clever hero of the Trojan War, a Ulysses Pact simply means making a choice in the present (when temptation is low) that binds you to an action in the future (when temptation is strong).
- Suppose you wanted to stick with your commitment to practice mindfulness meditation every weekday morning. You could write a series of checks to a good friend, each for $30, and then tell them to cash one and use the money however they want each morning that you don’t text them a photo of your meditation timer going off.
- Or let’s say you want to start eating more healthy foods. A relatively simple example of the Ulysses Pact might be to only go grocery shopping in the morning after breakfast (so you’re not hungry) and to only buy healthy foods at the grocery store. The idea is that if you simply don’t have junk food in the house, it’s easier to eat healthily. After all, the best way to resist a temptation is to just avoid it altogether.
The Ulysses Pact—or commitment device, as it’s sometimes called—is a simple way to maintain motivation when things get tough by “locking in” your behavior ahead of time.
5. Avoid Other People’s New Year’s Goals
The 2nd and 3rd tips in this list were to choose goals you actually enjoyed working toward and to align those goals with specific values that were motivating. The principle behind both of those suggestions is that the more personally relevant your goals are—both in terms of enjoyment and rationale—the more likely you will be to stick with them in the long-run.
Well, it’s worth pointing out that one of the biggest reasons people lose steam with their New Year’s goals is that they aren’t really their goals at all. And as a result, their motivation can’t be sustained very long.
So why would someone choose goals that weren’t really their own? Why would someone choose someone else’s New Year’s goal?
Turns out, “peer pressure” isn’t just something we experience in middle school and high school and then put safely behind us once we’re mature, intelligent adults. Far from it, in fact…
Social pressure impacts far more of your life decisions than you likely realize. From what face cream you buy at Target to whom you choose to marry, your decisions are often subtly but powerfully influenced by other people and what they think. Consequently, it’s all too easy to end up choosing New Year’s goals because they’re the goals we think we should want to choose based on various social pressures and influences.
Sometimes this might mean literally avoiding entire categories of goals and choosing different ones:
- Maybe “getting into yoga” sounds like a good goal because all your friends are into it. But if don’t actually enjoy yoga or find it valuable, it’s going to be very hard to maintain motivation to do it consistently.
- Or maybe getting on the Keto Diet seems like the right goal for losing weight because it’s the popular one everyone’s talking about at the moment. But is a super high fat, low carb diet really a good fit for you and your preferences (not to mention your physiology)…? If not, it’s going to be awfully hard to stick with it past the first month or two.
But more commonly, not choosing other people’s New Year’s goals might mean adjusting a goal to be more personalized:
- Maybe exercising more is your New Year’s goal (and everybody else’s). But what you really need is to think more creatively about how you exercise. If you hate gyms, why force yourself to exercise in a gym? Maybe you ought to figure out how to go hiking more or buy a spin bike for your garage.
Here’s the takeaway idea:
When you personalize your New Year’s goals, you boost your intrinsic motivation, which is the key ingredient to sustainable routines and practices and the long-term goals they’re designed to lead you to.
6. Anticipate Obstacles (and Make a Plan for Them)
When the first of the year arrives and we start setting our New Year’s goals, it’s a time of excitement and hope. So, understandably, we’re all a little resistant to the idea of thinking about the negatives—how things might go wrong with our best-laid plans.
But here’s the thing:
You’re making a huge mistake if you don’t consider all the ways your goals and routines could fail and go wrong.
Everybody runs into obstacles and setbacks with their New Year’s goals, no matter how careful and thoughtful you were choosing and implementing them. But if these setbacks lead to shock and confusion, they’re likely to move from minor or temporary problems to the kind of major blow-up that leads to abandoning your goals altogether.
To be a bit more metaphorical…
You’re less likely to fall off the wagon when things get bumpy if you were expecting the bumps and fastened your seatbelt ahead of time.
If you want your New Year’s goals to last, you need to anticipate the most likely obstacles to them and make specific plans for how you will deal with those obstacles.
Let’s say your New Year’s goal is to call your best friend who lives in another state more often. Specifically, your plan is that every Friday afternoon, you’re going to go for a walk and call your friend.
But then, unexpectedly, your boss asks you to take on a new project at work and you no longer have Friday afternoons free. Now, if you didn’t anticipate this, you might end up “winging it” and trying to fit a weekly conversation with your best friend in whenever you can… lunch breaks, commutes home, etc. I don’t think you need me to tell you that this is not a great plan.
On the other hand, let’s say you had anticipated that your leisurely Friday afternoons might not last and come up with a Plan B… If Friday afternoons fell through, you could move to the Saturday afternoon spin class and use Saturday mornings at 9:30 to call your friend.
Now, this might sound a little silly: Come on! I’m an adult—if an obstacle comes up I can handle it then and there.
Sure, you’re perfectly capable of handling that in a perfect world. But when things are tough and you’re stressed out, and on top of everything else, you’re feeling bad about yourself for a setback to your New Year’s goal, making even a relatively simple decision like how to rearrange your schedule to accommodate a displaced routine can seem insurmountable. And as a result, can easily lead to just giving up on it.
If you have a history of “falling off the wagon” when it comes to New Year’s goals, I’d strongly urge you to consider taking a little time to anticipate the most likely obstacles to that goal and make a concrete plan for how you will react to those obstacles. I think you’ll find it time very well spent.
7. Experiment with Productive Procrastination
I think we can all related to procrastination being a major obstacle to following through on New Year’s goals. Whether it’s playing video games instead of working on that side project or watching TV instead of hitting the gym, procrastination is an ever-present temptation.
But here’s what most people get wrong about procrastination…
Most people try to fight procrastination or avoid it altogether when the best strategy is actually to embrace it.
At first blush, the idea of productive procrastination probably sounds contradictory: How can procrastination be productive when procrastination is the very thing getting in the way of my productivity and goals in the first place!
The key idea is that fighting against our tendency to procrastinate doesn’t work very well in the long run. And instead, it’s best to accept that it’s normal to want to procrastinate, and then, figure out a way to work with this tendency.
One way to see procrastination differently is that it’s the result of your brain’s natural desire for novelty and change. So, instead of getting down on yourself because you crave novelty, what if you embraced this?
For example: suppose you’re working on staying motivated to keep up your New Year’s goal of journaling every evening. However, you find yourself regularly procrastinating on it. Instead of fighting this, procrastinate productively by giving yourself permission to do some small distracting activity for a few minutes before your journaling.
If you give yourself permission to procrastinate in small ways and you’ll be less likely to end up procrastinating in big ways.
8. Use the Seinfeld Strategy to Track Your Progress
The Seinfeld Strategy is a simple but powerful technique to stay motivated with any habit or routine.
The strategy supposedly comes from some advice Jerry Seinfeld gave someone once about how to stay motivated and consistent in your work:
[Seinfeld] told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.
He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days, you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
“Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.
So the Seinfeld Strategy looks like this:
- For any habit, task, or routine you’d like to stick to, plan to do you a little bit of it every day.
- Every day you successfully complete the routine or habit, mark off that day on a calendar with a big, bold X.
- Try to keep your streak going as long as possible. And if you do miss a day, note how long your streak was next to that box. That’s your new target to beat.
The Seinfeld Strategy is such a powerful way to stay motivated because it’s motivating in two different ways simultaneously:
- Crossing off each successful day gives you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction—positive reinforcement.
- But avoiding the pain that comes with breaking your streak also motivates you to keep going—negative reinforcement.
9. Practice Gentle Self-Talk
If you’ve set good goals, you probably have more motivation than you realize. But you may be wasting huge chunks of it. And one of the biggest culprits behind wasted motivation is negative self-talk.
Self-talk refers to our habit of talking to ourselves, both what we say to ourselves in our own head and how we say it.
If your habitual, automatic self-talk tends to be negative, self-critical, and judgmental, it’s going to produce a lot of painful emotion like guilt, anxiety, frustration, and sadness—all of which interfere with your natural motivation to reach your goals.
Instead, work to create a new habit of gentle self-talk.
For example: Let’s say you jumped off the treadmill 5 minutes early because you were just too tired to keep going…
- Harsh Self-Talk: You’re so weak you couldn’t even finish the last 5 minutes. You’ll never get in shape for that 5K.
- Gentle Self-Talk: I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t make it all the way to the end, but the fact that I’m so tired means I must be really giving my muscles a good workout.
Negative self-talk is one of the most powerful obstacles to staying motivated and staying committed to your goals.
If you can learn to notice and then re-shape your self-talk to be more constructive and gentle, you’ll be amazed at how much motivation you’ll already have.
10. Recruit a Support Person
When it comes to setting New Year’s goals and resolutions, you’ll often hear the advice to get an “accountability buddy” or something similar.
In general, the idea of shoring up some social support for your goals is a good idea. But people often make a couple key mistakes in the process:
- They imagine their social support person’s main job is to check in on their progress toward their goal or outcome. This is a problem since—as we discussed in the first point of this article—the best way to stay motivated and actually achieve your goal is to mostly ignore the goal itself and keep your focus on the daily routines or habits that will move you toward your goal.
- They think of their social support person as someone who will stop them from slipping up. This is a problem since it frames the challenge in negative terms—an accountability partner is there to stop you from messing up. But in general, positive reinforcement is far more reliable and powerful for keeping us motivated, especially in the long run.
If you want to recruit a friend or partner to help you stay motivated and make progress toward your goal, try these two approaches:
- Don’t tell them your end goal. For example, if your end goal is to lose 30 pounds, tell your social support person that their job is to help you show up at the gym 5 days a week, nothing more. The more focused you and your social support person are on the regular routines you need to do to be successful, the more likely you are to stay motivated to stick with them.
- Tell your social support person that their entire job is to support your wins. Their job is to validate you and encourage you, not to serve as a form of social threat to keep you from slipping up. Their job is to congratulate you after a tough workout, not guilt-trip you to showing up at the gym.
Finding a friend or partner to aid you in your goal can be a powerful source of motivation and encouragement. But make sure you set things up right from the beginning.
But What Do You Think?
Got any especially good practices or tips I missed for setting good New Year’s Goals? Just let me know in the comments below!