Tired of resolutions you can’t keep? Try downsizing them

(Art: Igor Bastidas/The New York Times)

After the unpredictable, torrid year we’ve had, the idea of making New Year’s resolutions for 2021 might seem a tad overwhelming.

“I am keeping the bar so low,” comedian Robyn Schall joked during an interview with The New York Times last month. “No goals,” she said, laughing. “Just one day at a time.”

Schall, 36, became Internet-famous in November after she posted a video on TikTok about her unfulfilled resolutions from last December, a list she read aloud while “half-crying, half-laughing” with a glass of wine in hand.

“Travel more,” she wrote. (She has been sequestered in “the tiniest of tiny” studio apartments in Manhattan.) “Make more money.” (Schall has been unemployed since March.) “Be more social.” (Nope.) “Spend more time with my grandma.” (Both of her grandmothers died this year.)

Even if you’re the type of person who is put off by New Year’s resolutions, experts say that in 2021 – or any year, really – writing out one or two specific, small and attainable goals can help develop confidence and a sense of pride, improving your well-being.

And right now we could all use a little more positivity in our lives. Here’s how to get started.


Just because it’s the first of January doesn’t mean you will automatically feel motivated to start a new habit.

“You’re not going to sustain a behaviour change unless you have internal motivation,” said Sara Dolan, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

So when making New Year’s resolutions, consider what changes you’d like to make, but also why you want to make them, Assoc Prof Dolan advised. What makes you feel committed to reaching your goal?

"Writing out one or two specific, small and attainable goals can help develop confidence and a sense of pride, improving your well-being."

For example, if you know you’d like to lose weight, is it because you’re trying to conform to society’s standards about body size? Is it because your doctor told you to do it? Those are external motivators, which are less likely to help you reach your goal. 

On the other hand, if losing weight appeals to you because eating healthy foods and exercising make you feel physically and mentally better, those are internal motivations that will make you more likely to build new, long-term habits.


For New Year’s resolutions to work, avoid pie-in-the-sky wishes and focus instead on goals that are doable and easily measurable. Resolving to get healthier, for example, might be too vague.

“If you set this giant, non-specific, unattainable goal, what motivation are you going to have to ever try again if you fail?” Assoc Prof Dolan said.

If you want to get stronger but haven’t exercised in years, don’t aim to start working out at the gym three days a week for an hour at a time.


Dumbbells and crumpled towel


Instead, whittle your expectations and start by going to the gym once a week for just half an hour or less, Assoc Prof Dolan advised. If you can do this consistently for a couple of months, try going twice a week. Each small success can help propel you toward bigger ones.

Michelle Gielan, author of the book Broadcasting Happiness: The Science Of Igniting And Sustaining Positive Change, said that she bought an elliptical exercise machine on Craigslist this year and made a goal to use it for just 15 minutes a day. The short time limit felt manageable to her, and once she actually started her workout, she would often keep going for an additional 10 minutes.

“Start small; pick some small goal that you almost know you’re going to accomplish,” Gielan said. “Your brain gets a win, and that win releases all these positive neurochemicals. And then we want to do it again.”


Having a goal is great, but how will you achieve it? For example, if you want to make more money, what are the steps you need to take in order to do that, and how much extra income would you need to hit your goal? 

If you’re employed, is overtime a possibility or are you aiming for a promotion? Do you need to go back to school to learn a different set of skills? The more you dissect your goal, the easier it is to break it into actionable steps.

New Year resolutions

And you’ll be more likely to follow through with your goal if those steps are detailed, said Charles Duhigg, author of The Power Of Habit, a book that explores the science of habit formation.

A 2011 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, for instance, found that employees of a large company who were prompted to write down the date and time they planned to get a company flu shot were statistically more likely to get it than those who received reminders for the shot but who weren’t prompted to write down their plan.

"Research shows that people are more likely to pursue their goals during times that feel like new beginnings in their lives."

“Oftentimes also, when you come up with a plan, you anticipate what the obstacles are going to be,” Duhigg said. “When people change sustainably, it’s because they anticipated where they’ll fail, and they’ve come up with some kind of recovery plan in advance.”


If you have several types of goals, choose one that resonates with you the most, the experts said. (Maybe choose two if you’re feeling ambitious.) Having just one goal and a plan for achieving it is more important than having lots of vague goals, they said.

Next, write everything down. This will not only help you think through your goals but also help make them more memorable, said Katy Milkman, a behavioural scientist and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of How To Change, a forthcoming book on the science of achieving goals.

Telling your goals to other people will also help keep you accountable, she added. “The more deeply you engage with them, the more likely you are to follow through,” Prof Milkman said.


Woman writing on notebook


When writing out your goal, the way you phrase it might also make a difference, according to a Swedish study published last month. Researchers found that it may be more effective to frame your plans in terms of what you are going to do versus what you shouldn’t do. 

For instance, say that you want to “go to bed a half an hour earlier” instead of saying you want to “stop going to bed so late”.


In the end, 2020 has been a rough year, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself when trying to meet your goal.

Research shows that people are more likely to pursue their goals during times that feel like new beginnings in their lives, Milkman said. Examples might include Mondays, birthdays, the first of the month or other milestones like starting a new job or moving to a different state. So don’t give up if you don’t fulfill your New Year’s resolutions.

Encourage yourself with gentle reminders – using your phone alarm can sometimes be helpful in nudging you to hit the gym or get ready for bed – and if money is tight, set yourself up for success by choosing goals that are inexpensive to achieve, said Dr Joel Young, medical director of the Rochester Center for Behavioral Medicine in Rochester Hills, Michigan.

Even if you don’t accomplish your goal as quickly as you want to or in the exact way you had planned, it’s still important to celebrate that you’re working toward making a positive change.

“In a year like this we need to give ourselves more grace and forgiveness and have more self-compassion,” Assoc Prof Dolan said.

Source: CNA Lifestyle


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