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5 Psychological Tips to Help You Stick to Your New Year's Resolution

12/26/2013 04:37 pm ET | Updated Feb 25, 2014
  • Avidan Milevsky Professor of Psychology, Therapist, Author, Parenting media expert

It's the season for resolutions.

This is how I see it. Imagine a toll collector by one of the tunnels leading into Manhattan. One morning a driver pulls up to the collector's booth, pays his toll and drives away. Right behind him another driver pulls up, pays his toll and also drives away. A few minutes later the same first driver again pulls up to his booth, pays the toll and drives away. Right behind him, again the second driver pulls up, pays his toll and drives away. A few minutes later the same thing happens. The two drivers pull up one after the other, pay their toll, and drive away. By the fourth time this happens the toll collector is baffled. And by the fifth time around, he finally musters the courage and asks the first driver why he is driving around in circles over and over again every few minutes. The driver responds "I am lost and constantly getting off the wrong exit ending back in the same spot where I was in the beginning." The toll collector then asks the second driver the same question. The second driver responds "I am a pizza delivery guy. Our store is in the city and my costumers are in Jersey... "

New Year resolutions can be like the first driver, the same routine over and over again with nothing to show for it at the end. You make resolutions, year in year out, never lasting for more than a few days ending up lost and in the same place you started. Alternatively, resolutions can be like the second driver where every spin around the year served a purpose and resolutions have lasting impacts.

Allow me to suggest five resolution-maintenance tips drawing from the world of psychology that may help you. Hopefully, this time around you can stick to your resolution creating long-lasting positive change in your life.

1. Tell others about the resolution.
Telling other people about your plan can help in many ways. First, it is always easier to stick to a resolution when you have other people supporting you in this endeavor. Beyond serving as your personal team of cheerleaders as you maintain your resolution, your friends are also less likely to tempt you with whatever it is you are trying to control if they know that you made a resolution about it. For example, if your resolution was about healthy eating, your friends are less likely to bring over your favorite ice cream for movie night if they know you are keeping away from such foods. Telling other people about your resolution is also helpful in that it keeps up the pressure on you to try and stick to your plan of action. Disappointing you is one thing, but disappointing your 1,356 friends on Facebook is a whole other problem.

2. Choose a measurable and specific resolution.
Instead of resolving to "look better" or "have a better relationship with so and so," choose a more definable and explicit resolution that can be accomplished in units of behavior. Choose a behavior that you can clearly tell, as the year unfolds, if you are accomplishing your goals. Resolving to "eat a vegetable every day," or "go out for coffee one a week with John," is a much easier resolution to track and assess if you are succeeding than a general resolution to "be a better person."

3. Build in a reward system.
Connected to the last tip of choosing a measurable and specific resolution is that when you do accomplish this specific behavior you resolved to do give yourself small rewards along the process. For example, for every week of healthy eating (i.e., vegetable consumption every day of the week) treat yourself with something special. By choosing a specific resolution that can be accomplished in units you can track your progress and reward yourself for a job well done.

4. Create resolution visual aids.
A colleague of mind decided one year for his New Year's resolution to be more frugal. He decided to try and save money by lowering his monthly bills. So he posted a copy of his highest electric bill by the thermostat of his heater so that every time he wanted to raise the temperature on the thermostat he will see the high electric bill reminding him to be more cautious about his energy consumption. His place was freezing but he stuck with his resolution. Think about a picture or some other artifact that you can hang up somewhere conspicuous as a reminder of your resolution goals.

5. Start with a ceremony.
Finally, kick off your resolution with a bang. Often, resolutions begin and end with an idea. The goal is to launch the idea into action. Getting started requires a push which then can be maintained with the tips noted above. Kick-start your resolution with some type of event or ceremony. For example, if the resolution is about relationship building, maybe use some old family photos in some creative ceremony to trigger the reconnection. Years ago, I encouraged a client looking to reconnect with his siblings to travel back to his childhood neighborhood and allow the location and the memories of him and his brothers to mark the beginning of a new chapter in his relationships. If you are looking to get in shape, maybe some type of sports day to jump-start your new life can be arranged. Be creative in how you plan on initiating your resolution -- try and literally turn a new page in some way.

Resolutions are hard to maintain. However, using these tips can help you avoid going through the motions with little results. Instead, be the pizza delivery guy.