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Don't Tell Your Mother, But the Key to a Healthier Life Is Lowering Your Ambition

02/13/2015 02:42 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

At the start of each New Year, we enthusiastically craft our life affirming 'resolutions' to make meaningful and positive changes in our lives. Unfortunately, by February, most of us have abandoned our ambitious resolutions and retreat to the couch feeling disappointed at our inability to change. Don't despair, you can change. The counter-intuitive truth is that in order to see results, you need to be much less ambitious. That's right, lowering your sights is the key to improving results.

Research teaches us that resolutions requiring extreme lifestyle modifications are simply too difficult to maintain. Without early success and positive feedback, we abandon them. As social psychologist and associate professor at Harvard Business School Amy Cuddy told Business Insider, "We're really bad at setting reasonable goals."

According to a recent article by co-founder and COO of Buffer, Leo Widrich, there is a scientific reason behind failed New Year's resolutions -- it is our lack of willpower. For many people, their New Year's resolutions tend to be drastic and require significant willpower. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that operates willpower and is responsible for concentration, short-term memory and solving abstract tasks. The brain requires repetitive association between actions and consequent results to form new patterns. Widrich explains that "any abstract goal you have that is not tied to a specific behavior is nearly impossible for the brain to focus on."

The key, as Widrich and others suggest, is to set small, achievable goals so you can feasibly form a habit, a new pattern. Whatever area of your life needs improvement -- personal health, career, relationships -- making realistic tweaks to your actions is the first and best step to forming a beneficial habit.

Here are some of my tips to create healthy habits:

1. Focus on building momentum: Since trying to make big changes all at once often leads to failure, pick small, incremental ways to change just a little at a time instead, and build momentum right away.

Instead of setting an abstract goal like "I want to lose weight," establish a series of small changes in your actions that are reasonable to achieve right from the start and repeat every day. So, "I want to lose weight" could translate into "I'll take the stairs up to my desk in the mornings this whole week" or "I'll drink a glass of water before lunch each day this month." Keep a daily chart and give yourself a check mark or star for each small achievement. You will build instant momentum and not want to break your streak. What's more, your success will give you the confidence to set new, slightly more ambitious goals and persist in achieving those as well. Eventually your goals will be very high indeed, but you will have worked your way up and built the momentum and confidence to succeed.

2. You have no time, so schedule it in minutes: Recently, The New York Times told us about the benefits of the "7 Minute Workout" which incorporates high-intensity interval training (HIIT) into just 7 minutes. You may not be able to go from a non-exerciser straight into a demanding HIIT workout, but science shows the benefits of even 20 minutes of any activity.

Self-care isn't selfish, it's a necessity and you need to make it a priority. Scheduling time in your calendar to focus on your health and wellness, even if you only have five minutes a day, is a great way to create a habit. Start off each week by identifying three blocks of 10 to 20 minutes that you will devote to exercise, yoga or meditation. Blocking the little time you have and designating it for healthy activity will make it easier for you to stick to it when the time comes. You won't need willpower to compel yourself to do it when it's just 15 minutes and the time is already allocated.

3. Take advantage of "found time" when it happens: Schedules work great, but be open to serendipity and take advantage of opportunities to seize the moment when you can. Whether it's a meeting that is canceled at the last minute, waiting on a friend who is stuck in traffic, or even a kid's baseball game that is going into extra innings, you can use these unexpected gaps as a "wellness break" to help you establish your healthy habit.

Do a five-minute guided meditation video to clear your mind while killing time in the parking lot before carpool or find your next workout while waiting for your latte by checking out the latest video classes on mobile apps like Grokker. Whatever you choose to do, filling your found moments with "wellness" is another step toward building a healthy habit.

4. Enlist a friend: Recruit a friend who also wants to build a healthy habit in his/her life. A friend can help you craft your first few simple, achievable goals so you don't overreach. And she can be there to motivate you when your willpower inevitably flags. After knee surgery a few years back, I gained a few pounds and enlisted a girlfriend to help me stay committed to my diet. I'd text her when feeling hungry or enticed by cupcakes, and she'd text me back with words of encouragement or funny photos of prize pigs at state fairs to keep me motivated. And vice-versa! Your help and support are necessary for her to achieve her wellness goals, too. That mutual accountability to each other will help you both stay on track and make it fun.

Your goals for a healthier, happier life can be achieved; you just need to lower your ambitions in order to change your habits. Instead of crafting dramatic resolutions which require great willpower, I urge you instead to start taking the smallest, achievable steps possible. Start small, very, very small, and you can build a new foundation for a healthy life.