With the start of another January approaching, many of us have taken to thinking about what we would like to accomplish in the new year. About four in ten Americans set at least one New Year’s resolution each year and research indicates only a minority of these people reach their goal by year’s end. Some studies suggest that over a quarter of individuals making resolutions will abandon their goals after the very first week of January. The most common resolutions include health-based changes like losing weight, quitting smoking, quitting drinking and getting regular exercise. Lifestyle-oriented goals like advancing one’s career, saving money and getting organized are also frequently mentioned.

Regardless of what type of goal is sought, those who reach their goals share some important similarities in terms of what they believe about change and what they do to make change happen. We’ve sorted through research on change and goal setting to present the below list of the most essential ways to help yourself on your journey to self-improvement.

1. Develop insight into your own problems.

Initially admitting to a drinking, drug, or obesity problem is usually very difficult for people despite how obvious the problem may be to anyone else with eyeballs. Still, no change can be enacted without the earnest recognition that change is needed. Developing insight and awareness of your problem is fundamental to building motivation to change, but stands as only a small part of the bigger change process. Insight into your behavior and attitudes can be generated alone through reflection or self-study or while working with a mentor, professional therapist or counselor. What do you want from your life? How is your bad habit or negative health behavior factoring into what you want from life? How does your undesirable behavior make you feel? How does it impact your loved ones, community and future? While gaining this insight is valuable, to really put this awareness to work for you, you will need an actionable plan for change. Insight alone is relatively useless.

2. Be specific and realistic.

Create a plan. Outline your goals. Write them out on paper. Keep the paper in your wallet and/or post it somewhere you will see it.  Say your goals aloud. Make sure they are clear and actionable and not just things you think would be nice to have. The more specific a goal is, the easier it will be for you to plan and work towards it. Telling yourself you want to save money is a great first step but opening up a savings account and automating small electronic deposits to it on a regular basis is an even better step. Similarly with health goals like exercising, start small and be realistic. If you’ve spent the last several years sitting on your couch watching TV every single day, do not get up on January 1st and start training like a star athlete preparing for a triathlon. If you try to do too much, you run the risk of hurting yourself and abandoning your goal altogether. Depending on your fitness level, you can start with as little as just 15-20 minutes of brisk walking per day or 30 minute intervals of exercise a few times per week. Increase the intensity and duration of your workouts as you move forward.  Just don’t get too crazy with it, okay?

3. Control your environment.

In designing your action plan, know that controlling your physical environment is completely underrated. Many people mistakenly believe that the ability to change is all about willpower and character strength. However, emerging research indicates that many people who consider themselves to have high levels of self control actually exert great control over their environments, thereby reducing the amount of will needed to power through temptation in the first place. This is almost laughable in how simple it is, but it works. If you are trying not to overeat, stay away from buffets. Are you spending too much time on the internet? Install an internet blocker to eliminate excessive surfing. Trying not to overspend? Leave your money and credit cards at home. If you don’t want to be caught up by temptation, stay away from where you know you will find it. Over time, your successful navigation away from temptation will permanently steer you on the right course and make self-control seem effortless.

4. Focus on progress not perfection.

The purpose of enacting change is to make a better life for yourself. Better does not mean perfect. If you seek perfection, you will end up disappointed as perfection does not exist. Some days, you just might fail at your goal. Accept it. If you slip off your diet for a meal or two, or miss a day at the gym, don’t just waddle away from your plan and give up all hope. Instead, recognize how and where you went wrong and get right back into your routine as soon as possible. In some cases, narrowly focusing on a single metric obscures your success. For example, weight loss can reduce your risk of several other diseases. Being disappointed over not reaching a desired number on a scale by a desired number on a calendar may prevent you from appreciating the healthful changes you’ve made, overall. Sometimes, a failure or slip up may simply be attributable to being exhausted or stressed. Self-regulation is like a muscle: you can build its strength but sometimes, it can also become overworked. Take time to recharge and rest if needed.  Tomorrow is always a new opportunity to start again.

5. Find support and be social.

For some people, building supportive relationships with similar others will be their greatest need. For others, having social support is less important to achieving their goals. Depending on your specific goals, you may strongly benefit by building supportive relationships. This does not necessarily have to take the form of visiting a mental health professional, medical doctor or support group–although many groups exist for not only alcohol and drugs but also overeating, spending, sex and love, depression and smoking cessation. Some support groups, like SMART Recovery (for which I volunteer), cover all kinds of behaviors during the course of a single meeting. But, finding support can come from existing friendships or family relationships, too. Additionally, some research has shown that people who advocate for social justice issues and organizations supporting healthy behaviors can also personally benefit from that advocacy, in so much that their individual motivation to maintain change is strengthened by becoming a part of something bigger than oneself. Whatever you are trying to do, you don’t have to do it alone.

6. Be persistent.

Regardless of what goal you are trying to set for yourself in 2013, don’t confuse a set back in your plan with the inability to complete your plan. Most people who are successful in reaching their goals got there only after repeated attempts. The American Lung Association reports that over six in ten people who’ve tried to quit smoking were successful only after multiple attempts. Maintenance of weight loss can be a lifelong endeavor. For people trying to learn a new skill, speak a new language or play an instrument, making mistakes is to be expected and fluency only comes after countless hours of practice. Learning life skills is no different. Be patient and be persistent.

[Feature photo by meddygarnet]

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