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How to keep your New Year's resolutions

You need to set 'SMART' goals then have a strategy to stay on track, says CapU psychology professor

By this point in January those New Year’s resolutions are fading into the rear-view mirror.

Maybe your Dryuary got a little damp or vow to be kinder and gentler to others fell apart on Twitter.

Whether you’ve resolved to hit the gym more, practice gratitude or give up sugar, most studies show most people’s hopeful plans have hit the skids by the end of January.

So why do we make New Year’s resolutions anyway? Is there any point to them? And how can we do a better job of keeping them?

We checked in with Douglas Alards-Tomalin, psychology professor at Capilano University, about what makes for a good resolution and tips on how to stay on track.

Why do people make New Year’s resolutions?

“The start of a new year is a convenient time for people to re-evaluate their identiy,” said Alards-Tomalin. “The next inevitable step is ‘OK, well where am I going? And who do I want to be?'”

Making resolutions is actually a good thing to do, said Alards-Tomalin. People who set goals and work towards them believe in their own abilities to meet challenges and have higher self-esteem, he said. “They feel like they’re more effective in their day-to-day lives.”

“So absolutely, I would say, it’s a really good process to imagine what it is you want to accomplish, and then set out a framework for reaching that.”

Why do most people fall short of their New Year’s goals?

The research shows that very few people follow up on their New Year’s resolutions, or even attempt them, past the first month of the year.

“I think the reason for that has to do largely with what kind of goals people are setting for themselves as New Year’s resolutions,” said Alards-Tomalin.

Many people set unrealistic goals. For others “the demands of our life often encroach on our ability to set time aside for achieving our goals,” he said.

Most people also need more short-term positive reinforcement for their efforts, as an impetus to keep going.

What can we do to have a better chance of keeping our resolutions?

First, break it down to manageable steps. “Don’t think of it as a high-level goal. Think of it as a series of steps towards achieving a goal,” said Alards-Tomalin. “And throughout the year, you can build that into your schedule.”

If losing weight is your goal, that might involve making changes to your diet and it might involve increasing your exercise schedule. “But it’s not necessarily something you’re going to accomplish in the first month or the first two months. You’re going to have to do it in in a series of much smaller steps.”

Think about gains rather than losses

Second, be positive. “Positive” resolutions are usually more effective than “negative” resolutions, said Alards-Tomalin. So instead of losing weight, you might resolve to get into shape or become healthier. Even better, you might resolve to bike or walk a certain number of kilometres rather than losing a specific number of pounds.

“If you’re framing it in a way where it’s something that you’re accomplishing, rather than losing, it’s going to just feel more satisfying to you in general,” said Alards-Tomalin.

Make sure you care

Third, make it something you care about. “If you’re trying to do something because you think someone else is going to like it, it’s not going to stick,” he said.

Sometimes we try to make changes because we think others will think better of us, but that’s not enough to see you through a larger goal, he said. “People need to set goals that are more based on their own identity and what they want to achieve.”


That’s a common acronym for approaching goal-setting. SMART means making goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. So instead of resolving to be “better rested,” resolve to get one extra hour of sleep within three months by gradually going to bed 10 minutes earlier each night, for instance.

Some goals might take a longer time to achieve, warns Alards-Tomalin. If you want to change careers, for instance, it might involve going back to school or getting additional training.

Do the experts also make resolutions?

Yes, says Alards-Tomalin, but not necessarily annual ones. “I find I do sort of make resolutions every three months,” he said. “I try to imagine, what is it that I want to get out of the upcoming three months,” sort of like a quarterly check-in. And it doesn’t have to start Jan. 1.

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