Two weeks into January. Days are short, the sun’s gone on holiday, we’re all fighting off a cold and praying for a snow day. The hopeful New Year’s resolutions to give up junk food, start meditating, go to yoga and sign up for that half marathon suddenly seem a little bit harder.

If you’re already struggling with your new year promises, you are not alone: studies suggest that nearly a third of us will have given up by the end of January. Don’t despair. The worst thing you can do is give up completely and promise you’ll try again next year. All we need is a re-jig: New Year’s resolutions take two. Here’s how to goal set like a pro and get back on track.

1) Go gently

First things first: chill. You don’t need to do everything at once. Overloading yourself with new challenges and multiple habit changes will leave you exhausted and zap your willpower.

Be kind to yourself and go gently. If you have a huge list of goals, cut them back to the one or two things you really want to accomplish. Sticking with a resolution is much easier when you don’t have 20 others to remember. January may be the conventional resolution setting time, but there are no rules against spreading them out over the year.

The science of willpower says that it takes at least a few weeks for a new habit to stick. After that things start to get a bit easier as you settle into your new routine. You’ll also feel more confident after your first victory and be spurred on to start another habit change or challenge.

2) Know your motivation

Look at each item on your list and ask yourself why you wrote it down. Dig deep and get specific.

For quite a few years, my resolutions list would always begin with a goal to lose weight. Once I finally got down to asking myself why I wanted this, I realised that weighing less wasn’t was I cared about at all. What I really wanted was to feel better and to have more energy. I reframed my resolutions from a theme of weight loss and deprivation to a theme of self-care. ‘Lose half a stone’ or ‘give up all junk food’ became: ‘base my diet around delicious, healthful foods that make me feel great.’

The other benefit of discovering what’s driving you is that is supercharges your willpower. When temptation strikes, reminding yourself why you want to stick at it makes you much less likely to give in. Resisting the biscuit tin is easier when you remember that being healthier is a vital component of your wider ambition to: get that dream promotion, run that half marathon, have more energy to play with the kids at the weekend… [insert inspiration here].

3) Schedule it

If your resolution is a ‘doing’ thing, like exercising more, getting to yoga or practising daily mindfulness, then writing it down in a list is only the first step. You need to schedule it. Fit the activity into your diary so you know you have time to do it. Be practical: if you’re not a morning person then scheduling a yoga session before work might not be the best idea. Perhaps a weekend class would be easier to manage. Make it work for you.

4) Replace bad habits with good ones

If your resolution is a ‘giving something up’ thing, find a healthy habit you can replace it with. Summoning the willpower to say no to something which is bad for you can be extra hard when your brain is used to doing it as part of your routine. Give yourself a fighting chance by swapping a bad habit for a healthier one.

If you snack after dinner, buy a tasty herbal tea and make that your post dinner ritual instead. If you tend to hit the vending machines when you’re stressed at work, switch to a walk around the office or learn a breathing exercise you can do as a habit swap.

5) Share your goals

Tell your mum, dad, siblings, friends, colleagues or even share it on social media. Not only will you gain extra support, but going public has been shown to help people stick to their goals. Who knows, you might even find a pal who’ll wants to be your running partner or come along to yoga with you.

If you need a bit more help in the willpower department, my recommended reading is: Maximum Willpower*, by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. The cover makes it look like self-help nonsense, but it’s an amazing book, jammed packed full of science and useful ideas. Kelly McGonigal is a very cool, award winning psychologist – you should also check out her awesome TED Talk How to Make Stress Your Friend.

I’d love to know if you’ve made any resolutions this year and how you’re getting on. Let me know in the comments section below.

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