4 ways to re-frame your New Year's resolution so you actually succeed

Here’s how to set yourself up for success in 2020, according to NBC News health editor Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom.
NBC News health editor Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom and Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski.
NBC News health editor Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom and Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski.Miller Hawkins

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By Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD

If you plan on making a New Year’s resolution, the odds are against your success. In fact, approximately 80 percent of resolutions fail by the second week of February each year.

Why the high failure rate? One of the big reasons is too many people make resolutions that are too general and vague, with no real action steps. The most common ones include, “I’m going to lose weight,” “I’m going to exercise more,” “I’m going to save money” and “I’m going to get organized.”

These goals all sound good, but they have no real plan to follow.

It’s human nature to want early and immediate success. But often, real change takes time. So you need to set smaller goals — even daily — to feel like you’re making progress

No matter what your major goals are for 2020, these four easy steps will help make your resolutions stick.

Keep it real.

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When you choose your resolution, think about why you’re doing it. Make it a meaningful personal change for you. And once you choose a goal, make it realistic — one that you can reach with moderate, not heroic, effort. Then you can then design a set of specific, small steps that work for you.

Reframe Your Resolution: For weight loss, set your sights on five pounds at a time, regardless of how much you want to lose. And when it comes to exercise, plan your first race to be a 5K, not a half marathon. These are reasonable and achievable goals that are manageable and provide short term success. While your desire to lose 40 pounds, or run a marathon can remain aspirational, choosing a realistic plan sets you up for success.

Keep it specific.

Think of the action steps required regularly to make the changes needed to achieve your overall goals. Be honest with yourself, and to begin, choose actions you know you can stick with. Choose a specific goal based on your current lifestyle, available time commitment and interest.

Reframe Your Resolution: If you want to save money, think first about the easiest lifestyle changes that will impact your bottom line. Maybe it’s bringing your lunch from home or cutting out your daily Starbucks coffee, rather than telling yourself you can’t go out anymore with your friends. Or grocery shop from a list, and look for swaps when similar items are on sale.

Be ready to tweak your plan.

Despite your best intentions, life doesn’t always go as planned. Maybe it’s a breakup, a career setback or the loss of a loved one. When the unexpected happens, it’s easy for people give up on their goals. Recognize and fight this impulse: modify your action steps and keep what’s working. Consider swapping out practices that are getting you off track. When you feel overwhelmed, take it easy on yourself.

Reframe Your Resolution: If life gets in the way, or you realize your resolution is just too difficult in practice, consider tinkering with your goal. For example, let’s say you made a resolution to switch to a plant-based diet. This is often easier said than done. So, instead of just calling it quits, you might add back in some other proteins you enjoy, like eggs, dairy, lean meat or chicken once or twice a week. The bottom line: It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. The goal is to stay connected and engaged, and this often takes a bit of trial and error.

Get the right support.

While any resolution is always based on your own internal motivation and personal goals, it’s a big help to have some external help around when you need it. When it comes to sticking with a resolution, sometimes it really does “take a village.”

Reframe Your Resolution: You don’t have to “tough it out” alone. Don’t be afraid to ask FOR or accept help. And understand what kind of support you need. For example, a walking partner might make the difference between walking daily for an hour or blowing it off. Or, lining up a diet buddy, especially during a particularly stressful time, can be helpful to stay on track.

But most of all, remember to be kind to yourself.

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D. is NBC News’ health editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.