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How to make New Year’s resolutions you’ll actually keep

Choose goals you'll really be revved up to work towards. Here's how the principles of positive psychology can help you succeed.

Woman doing pushups outdoors in the city.

Now that the tinsel and pine needles of Christmas festivities have been cleared away, we turn our attention to the new year stretching out ahead of us. A new year is a fresh start – the perfect chance to reflect on the past 12 months, and to determine our goals for the next.

Inevitably, we decide that the coming year will be different, better, healthier. And so we declare our New Year’s resolutions… many of which are long forgotten by Australia Day.

Here’s where positive psychology can help. Positive psychology is the study of wellbeing and the evidence-based ways we can enhance it. Understanding some of these principles can help give us a healthier, more inspiring and more effective framework for setting and achieving goals.

Positive goal setting

Many of us put some variation of “get fit” or “lose weight” on our list of resolutions each year. But for many of us, they remain simply good intentions – things that we will get started on soon, one day. Somehow, they don’t get the momentum they really need to make meaningful positive change in our lives.

One problem is that these goals are often based on negative beliefs like ‘”I’m so unfit” or “I can’t fit into my favourite jeans.” Putting yourself down might seem like a good way to motivate yourself to change, but the damage it can cause to your mood, happiness and sense of self worth are just not worth it. Besides, it rarely works – studies have found that “fat shaming” doesn’t encourage weight loss, and it can actually lead to weight gain. Framing your goals around positive and compassionate encouragement is a much healthier approach.

Secondly, we often flounder with our lofty fitness and weight loss goals because they’re not developed enough. Successful goals need to be positive, challenge you, be something you are committed to and be accompanied by an action plan. That means we need to develop these intentions into Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound (SMART) goals.

MORE: Take our Positive Psychology 101 course with psychologist Emily Toner.

SMART goals in action

Let’s workshop the “lose weight and get fit” idea.

First, be SPECIFIC – get clear about the details of your goal and how you’ll MEASURE achievement. Delve into RELEVANCE and define what your goal means to you and your values (not anyone else’s opinion). When you say you want to lose weight, what do you really mean? Do you want feel comfortable in summer clothes, or do you value having lots of energy but being overweight or unfit is making you tired?

Next, set yourself a CHALLENGE, making sure it is ACHIEVABLE (as a guideline for weight loss, approximately 1/2 a kg a week is realistic) and TIME BOUND (by when?).

So now your goal might look something more like this:

“By the end of January, I will have the energy to play with the kids all day and feel comfortable in bathers and shorts, having lost 2 kg.”

Almost there! Now let’s make it POSITIVE and incorporate FEEDBACK (how will you measure your progress?):

“By the end of January, I will be excited about going to the beach, spending the day swimming and playing with the kids, comfortable wearing my favourite bathers and shorts. I’ll be eating well and doing 30 minutes of activity everyday.”

Great! Now doesn’t that feel much more inspiring than “lose weight”?

MORE: Learn more about maximising your motivation to reach your goals.

Creating your action plan

Now your goal is defined, it’s essential to plan how you’re going to achieve it. Here are some guidelines:

  • Break it down into steps. For example, investigate a healthy eating plan that suits you and your lifestyle, find out which classes run at your gym, buy new running shoes, or load up music on your iPod that you’ll want to listen to as you exercise.
  • Consider different options and choose the one that works best for you. For example, the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet is an easy meal plan to follow, or if you need some fitness motivation, maybe you could sign up for a 10 week bootcamp.
  • Predict the obstacles and decide on an action plan.
  • Get the support of friends.

The most important step is to start! Take one step at a time, celebrate progress, and focus on how great it is going to feel when you get there.


References and more info

Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology by Tim Lebon, Hachette Australia.

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