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Percent of Americans who usually make New Year’s Resolutions: 45{a16c29276902c0134dc3724dc6f6a60124a484baf737123e94c02cf5a4efbdc5}.
Percent of people who are successful in achieving their resolutions: 8{a16c29276902c0134dc3724dc6f6a60124a484baf737123e94c02cf5a4efbdc5}.

If you see January 1 as an opportunity to adopt a new habit or get rid of an old one, these results published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology1 illustrate the challenge ahead.

Behavioral scientists say the most important factor in changing one’s ways isn’t will power. It’s a plan. By following these steps, you may be more likely to transform New Year’s aspirations into accomplishments:

1. Set a small, specific goal.

Instead of “I will eat healthier meals,” your resolution might be “I will eat a serving of fruit or veggies at every meal.”

2. Decide how to incorporate this goal into your daily routine.

Success is more likely if you link the new habit to something you’re already doing. Suppose your resolution is to walk a mile every day. You already eat breakfast, right? You might keep your breakfast in the freezer overnight and take it out just before leaving on your walk. By the time you get back, it will be thawed and ready to heat and/or eat.

3. Develop an action statement:

“In situation X, I will do Y to achieve Z.” For example, “When offered dessert, I will ask for a cup of black coffee instead to help me lose weight.” Visualize yourself doing this. Try to anticipate these critical moments and rehearse your response.

4. Remind yourself who’s in charge.

Changing is tough. No matter what the “I’m the boss” part of your brain decides, a more primitive part craves the comfort of old habits, and hates the disruption of doing things differently. “Making changes, even small ones, feels threatening psychologically, as if even a positive change is a risk,” says alternative medicine guru Deepak Chopra.2 Ask yourself, “Who’s the boss here, me or this cute pair of shoes I don’t really need to buy?”

5. Don’t beat yourself up for lapses.

If you slip up, don’t despair. Tomorrow is a new day. You can start again.

6. Be patient.

It may take longer than you think for new behavior to become automatic. Something simple like drinking a glass of water before meals may become routine in only a few weeks, but it could be months before you accustom yourself to getting up without a morning cigarette. University of London researchers have found it takes an average of 66 days for a new habit to take root.

7. Reinforce the new habit with a reward.

This could be a big check mark on a wall calendar, a victory dance to a tune you love, or a fist-pump with a self-congratulatory “Yes I can!”

Reminder, routine, and reward are the three R’s of successful resolutions. Put some thought into making them work for you, and next year you could become the new and improved person that you want to be.

1 J.C. Norcross, M.S. Mrykalo, & M.D. Blagys, “Auld lang syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers,” J Clin Psychol 58: 397-505, 2002

2 “A Personal Mission: Define Your Wellness,” The Huffington Post, 4/25/12