13 Tips for Sticking to Your New Year's Resolutions

Gretchen Rubin on creating your own personal happiness

New Year’s Eve is just a few weeks away, and that means it’s the season for resolutions. I’ve always been part of the some 44% of Americans who make (and also break) New Year’s resolutions; I’m a big believer in the power of small changes to make us happier.

Along the way, and especially since I started my resolutions-based happiness project, I’ve hit on some strategies for helping myself stick to resolutions.

1. Be specific. Don’t resolve to “Make more friends” or “Strengthen friendships”; that’s too vague. To make more friends as part of my happiness project, I have several very concrete resolutions like: “Start a group,” “Say hello,” “Make plans,” “Show up,” and “No gossip.”

2. Write it down.

3. Review your resolution constantly. If your resolution is buzzing through your head, it’s easier to stick to it. I review my Resolutions Chart every night.

4. Hold yourself accountable. Tell other people about your resolution, join or form a like-minded group, score yourself on a chart (my method) — whatever works for you to make yourself feel accountable for success and failure.

5. Think big. Maybe you need a big change, a big adventure – a trip to a foreign place, a break-up, a move, a new job. Let yourself imagine anything, and plan from there.

6. Think small. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that only radical change can make a difference. Just keeping your fridge cleared out could give you a real boost. Look close to home for ways to improve and grow.

7. Ask for help. Why is this so hard? But every time I ask for help, I’m amazed at how much easier my task becomes. If you have an especially tough time keeping resolutions, if you have a pattern of making and breaking them, try these strategies:

8. Consider making only pleasant resolutions. We can make our lives happier in many ways. If you’re struggling to keep your resolutions, try resolving to “Go to more movies,” “Find more time to read,” or whatever resolutions you’d find fun to keep. Often, having more fun in our lives makes it easier to do tough things. Seeing more movies might make it easier to keep going to the gym.

9. Consider giving up a resolution. If you keep making and breaking a resolution, consider whether you should relinquish it entirely. Put your energy toward changes that are both realistic and helpful. Don’t let an unfulfilled resolution to lose twenty pounds or to overhaul your overgrown yard block you from making other, smaller resolutions that might give you a big happiness boost.

10. Keep your resolution every day. Weirdly, it’s often easier to do something every day (exercise, post to a blog, deal with the mail, do laundry) than every few days.

11. Set a deadline.

12. Don’t give up if something interferes with your deadline.

13. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Thank you, Voltaire. Instead of starting your new exercise routine by training for the marathon, aim for a 20-minute walk each day. Instead of cleaning out the attic, tackle one bureau drawer. If you break your resolution today, try again tomorrow.

What else? What are some strategies you’ve discovered, to help you stick to your New Year’s resolutions?

Editor’s Note: Gretchen Rubin is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project.  Each Wednesday is tip day on her blog.

4 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    I guess I am one that finds even the word “resolution” defeating.  It just sounds like a big formal word — and I can see a judge pounding his gavel and saying “do it . . .or else”.   There seems to be no set date that we start in a new direction.  Instead, one morning in May we may find we are inspired.  I find it is usually after I have read something or a friend has said something that stops me in my tracks.  .  . but most often, it is like a window has opened in my brain that seems to direct me forward, often with clear answers . . . other times with pretty good ideas.

    In life, most of us hopefully want to move forward.  Being in a rut, hiding under the covers in bed, only is comforting so long.  Usually, inspiration strikes . . . and the beginning of ideas follow.  I also notice that when our first baby steps in a new direction give us fresh life and fresh hope, confidence again comes round to us.  Certainly, part of our confidence means that we want to look good — perhaps dressing better, changing our hair color . . . and losing that weight.  Losing weight, for instance, for what? is not good enough incentive.  But once we get out there, meeting people, going forward, we are not usually stuffing our mouths.  We are talking too much for that, laughing too much.  We don’t need to eat all that stuff when we are happy.  

    So what I guess I am saying is that changes in life is a moving process where one thing leads to another.  If you don’t clean your drawers for the fourth year — so what?  You are out mixing with people, going places, and learning things as you go along.  I have gone in directions that earlier I had not dreamed of — and loved every minute of it.  Instead of writing a list, I recommend getting out your door as often as you can.  A chance encounter is going to change your life as it did mine – and then another and another.  You will never know that my drawers are untidy or I haven’t dusted in a month . . . but you WILL know from my exhilaration that something wonderful is happening and I am a size smaller.  . and I have found that blondes DO have more fun!

    I really would like to know though how others do with “resolutions”.   I may be the only lose cause on starting anew on January 1.

  2. avatar Maggie W says:

    Several years ago, I read an interview with Susan Dell, wife of Michael Dell. As a mother of four, a fashion designer, a chair of numerous charities, an avid runner, and wife of a world famous man, her life is centered and calm. On her bathroom mirror, she taped her daily goal… “ Be good and do good.” I like that simple message. It’s all I need.
    I have never made any resolutions. Like Susan, I try to “do good and be good”… at whatever I attempt and with my family ,friends, and employees. I am happy with my life. The past is history; no point in revisiting that except for fond memories. The future will arrive , along with its warts and roses. So, mainly I live in the moment and try to make that moment pleasant for me, my loved ones,  and the people with whom I come in contact that day.

  3. avatar Rho says:

    I don’t make resolutions, but those are great tips.  Maybe I will make one or two this year.

  4. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    I do a “burning bowl” in which I write down the tragedies, and the terrors who created them, of the past year and “cast them off” so I suppose my sole resolution is letting go of the past year.  I used to send a “Christmas Tale” that started “T’was the night before Christmas and all through the house, all the creatures were trembling including the mouse…” and “cast them off” that way until part of one “tale” almost ended up in a book and I had to explain the “tales” really weren’t for public consumption. Even though they were mailed just about everywhere. But considered “personal communication” per a libel attorney.

    Burning bowls, tacky tales, resolutions.  All are ways we leave the past year behind with hope for the new year.  But we should remember to affirm the things we wish to carry forth such as friends who were there for us, perhaps resolving to remember to be there for them in the coming year, the acts of kindness from strangers, perhaps resolving to remember to share the kindness with other strangers, acquaintances who have come into our lives that we would like to know better and perhaps resolving to, making a list and perhaps checking it twice of all the good things and good times of the past year and resolving to enjoy the good things and good times yet to come in the new year.  Most importantly perhaps simply resolving to make the world a better place for others in the coming year.  And part of that may simply be resolving to make our own little world a better place for ourselves and sharing the smiles a resolution realized produce. 
    A friend years ago spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s reflecting on the previous year and making a list of things she felt would make her feel better about herself in the coming year, her “want” list as she called it, and she chose 12 and wrote them down and placed them in envelopes and put them in a box and the first was opened on January 1st and on the others on the 1st of every month.   One month was “Do what I really want to do” and she had to go to London on business that month and she was one of these “time is money” types but decided to do what she had always wanted to do so she rearranged her month and took the QEII instead of flying and the first night out met a man on deck and fell madly in love and lived happily ever after for ten years! Being in the right place at the right time is sometimes just a matter of allowing yourself to be.

    My one annual resolution is always not to gossip in the coming year.  Which always lasts until the phone rings.