New Year Resolutions get a bad rap. We fear the sense of failure if we can’t maintain our goals, In fact, research from the University of Scranton suggests that only 8% of people achieve their New Year’s goals.

However, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that those who set New Year resolutions are 10 times more likely to actually change their behavior than people who don’t make these yearly goals.

The new year is seen by us as a time for a fresh start and clean slate. It’s an opportunity to do things a little bit better and a little bit differently. The key to success is increments. Break down your goals into smaller, attainable wins and you’ll have a much better chance at a lifestyle shift.

Incremental wins set up long term gains

There are varying scientific studies that suggest breaking old habits and replacing with new ones can take between 21 days (renowned Psycho-Cybernetics book, 1960, by Dr. Maxwell Maltz) and 66 days (a 2009 study of 96 people published in The European Journal of Social Psychology). For argument’s sake, let’s go with one month.

We need our Big Win to be at the end of January.

How on Earth are we to keep up that exercise routine, or not smoking, drinking, eating junk food or whatever our particular vice may be, through the end of January?

I’ve exercised regularly, mostly at gyms, my entire adult life. I’ve had a few set backs through the years – first due to sheer laziness for about 6 months. A couple others due to injuries. So, I know how hard it can be to get back into the routine as a lifestyle habit. For this reason, I’ll use the popular exercise resolution to illustrate how to keep with your commitment, but you can apply this strategy to any lifestyle change desired.

By the way, each year I dread the first three weeks of January as the New Year members descend on the gym. It’s uncomfortably crowded that first week, but I take solace in knowing that by the third week of January all will be back to normal.

Think about that – most of these folks only need to stick it out another week to make a dramatic mental and lifestyle shift. Instead, most become 90% of the gym members that don’t use their memberships, but are subsidizing the 10% that do go regularly.

A system of winnable mini-goals

Most of us can muster up enough mental gumption to make it through the first week of our resolution as we’re fueled by the guilt of our holiday season indulgence. However, the following week we’re starting to feel like our old selves again and our will power begins to wane.

Using exercise as our New Year Resolution example, let’s set up a system of “wins” that can keep us fueled through the next 3 weeks the way guilt gets us through Week One.

Compulsive behavior is what really needs changed

First, note that setting up our goals in a compulsory manner (“I’m going to work out 6 days/week for two hours each of cross fitness training!”) will only produce the same compulsory rebound that we’ve experienced over and over before – whether it’s exercise, diet or any other compulsive habit. Let’s try a more moderate and sustainable approach that has the best chance of resulting in a life style change.

Let’s commit to each week consisting of 3, and no more than 4, work out days. Let’s also keep our sessions to no more then 1-hour in length for the entire month of January. We can’t allow the “I don’t have time” excuse to creep in. We can re-evaluate our work out session lengths AFTER January 31st.

Week One

Day One is incredibly important. We need to actually get off on good footing rather than chickening out. Let’s assume that we have our gym membership (or home gym, if you think you can sustain it) in place, the first Mini-Win is walking through the door. Don’t underestimate this one! Delight in this achievement and embark on a light exercise routine that suits you.

Don’t do too much. We need our bodies to not get too tight or sore for our next workout. A nice reward at the end of a 30 minute or so treadmill walk (and 10 minutes of stretching) would be 10 minutes in a massage chair, steam room or the like (I just joined Planet Fitness and LOVE the amenities!).

Let’s start shifting our thinking away from “Ugh – exercise day!” to “Yay – Spa Day!”

Day Two and Three. Let’s assume we’re going to work out 3 days/week. Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings before work suits my schedule best, but find what is a sustainable habit for you.

It’s very important that we find an exercise routine that is unique and sustainable to us individually – meaning, we like it as much as possible. One person may prefer using cardio equipment while another prefers using weights, and another may prefer palates. I suggest utilizing any combination of all of these and arriving at a week of consistency, but variety. Example: EVERY Monday is cardio day, EVERY Wednesday is circuit training on weight machines, and EVERY Friday is a palates or yoga class.

Don’t forget to end each, if possible, with a pleasurable yet positive ritual such as massage chair, healthy meal, or smoothie. The reward is extremely important. After our first full month, when our lifestyle habit has taken hold, the reward will become more about how we feel about ourselves – physically and emotionally. We just need to get to the end of the first month!

Week Two-Four

Remember, most people quit by about the third week. But, if you do sustainable workouts with a healthy reward at the end, you should be able to embrace your shifting mindset enough for another “Spa Day” into crucial Week Four.

I’d suggest that you have a plan for a real reward for your First Huge Win (sustaining your routine through January 31st). Maybe a professional hour-long massage. Maybe it’s a short vacation. But, whatever it is must be a contribution to your achievement NOT, “I don’t have to work out for a week”. Likewise, if you’re applying this methodology to quitting smoking, I hope you could see the fruitlessness of saying, “I can have one cigarette as my reward”.

Final Thoughts

I hope that the point is made clear that this is about achieving a life style shift, not a brain or body transplant. This year, let’s be a little more kind to ourselves. Let’s care ourselves enough to make a shift… then, let’s LOVE ourselves enough to set up a sustainable schedule with small, positive rewards along the way. We can worry about becoming perfect next year.


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