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Yes, experts say—you can reach your goals.

Every year, it’s the same drill. We and 50 million other Americans start out with a huge adrenaline rush, energized and ready to lose those extra pounds and get into the best shape of our lives.

Yet weeks later, most of us have thrown in the towel. Why can’t we seem to capitalize on all the “new year/new you” energy? For one thing, researchers say, we fail to come up with a good plan to get there.

To help you understand what drives these resolutions, where we go wrong and what’s needed to create lasting change, 24Life talked to some of the nation’s top researchers in behavioral science who are participating in the Behavior Change for Good Initiative, led by University of Pennsylvania researchers Angela Duckworth and Katherine Milkman. The groundbreaking project’s goal is to help improve public health by helping people better understand their behavior and giving them a package of support and tools to turn those January diet and fitness dreams into lifelong healthy habits.

Why do we make New Year’s resolutions?

The idea of a fresh start and better habits at the beginning of each year is nothing new. January resolutions date as far back as ancient Rome when Emperor Julius Caesar established the first of this month as the official start of the year, naming it after the two-headed god Janus, who was believed to symbolically look forward into the previous year and back over the previous one. Then Romans made sacrifices to the deity, as well as promises of good conduct in the year ahead.

Today, we still feel that same desire to start over and improve, says Ayelet Fishbach, professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. New Year’s, she says, “is a societal moment of evaluating how we want things to be different.”

For a huge chunk of the population, that desired change is physical.

  • Fifty-eight percent of Americans surveyed last January by the Statistic Brain Research Institute says they make New Year’s resolutions, and the most common resolution was fitness-related, according to the study, with 22 percent resolving to lose weight or eat healthier and another 6 percent vowing to work out more often.

But for all our January enthusiasm, most are doomed to fail as early as weeks later. Only 9 percent of those surveyed thought they were successful in achieving their resolution.

Does that mean they’re a waste of time? “I don’t think New Year’s resolutions are a complete bust,” Fishbach says. “They just don’t live up to our expectations.”

Where does it go wrong?

One of the key reasons Fishbach says our resolutions fail is they are unrealistic, with many of us shooting for near perfection without considering the cost.

After weeks if not months of indulging, these grand goals certainly feel motivating, and the hope is that this passion, willpower and positive talk—as well as disgust over our bulging waistline—will be enough to get us to the gym every day after work, or help us completely eliminate sugar from our diet, or adopt a plant-based diet.

  • What resolvers really need, however, is a realistic plan that takes into consideration the daily obstacles and temptations that they will face, such as how tired they are after that long day of work, says Max Bazerman, co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, or how an individual will handle his or her partner’s stash of ice cream and cookies, or come up with vegetable recipes that he or she actually likes.

If evenings are a struggle, it could be planning to exercise before work or during lunchtime and packing gym clothes the night before so you won’t forget. Or it could mean keeping water, fruit and healthy snacks at your desk.

To fit his exercise in without hitting a gym, Bazerman, an expert in negotiation (including the internal negotiation between “shoulds” and “wants”) doesn’t allow himself to buy Harvard’s faculty parking pass, thereby ensuring he gets his 10,000 steps a day—rain or shine. “I just took away that option,” he says.

What are your best tips for resolution success?

To be successful, you need to start with a resolution that is challenging or a bit of a stretch but still has a reasonable chance of success.

“You have to come up with something that is more plausible,” Fishbach says.

Very few people could realistically commit to making it to the gym every day, but two to three times a week? That’s much more realistic, especially for those not in the habit.

Next, come up with the incentives to get yourself there. While knowing your “why” is important, having that reward of feeling confident six months from now isn’t that effective in getting you to the gym today, Bazerman says.

Here’s what Bazerman and Fishbach recommend as “behavioral nudges” to get you showing up for your goal consistently.

1. Sync up your workouts with friends.

If you are expected and you know that other people will be disappointed if you don’t show up, you’re likely to go. And hey, why not throw in a cup of tea and a catch-up afterward? “You get friendship and exercise,” Bazerman says. “How can you think about exercise that makes it more enjoyable and less painful?”

2. Do something you love.

If you hate getting wet like Fishbach does, swimming is not going to be something you’ll stick with, despite how beneficial and easy it is on your joints. If you like to dance, hit the Zumba class and don’t make yourself take that boot-camp class that everyone else thinks is so great. Start with something that interests you or that you already enjoy.

3. Save your guilty pleasure for the gym.

Milkman coined a term “temptation bundling” for the act of coupling instantly gratifying “want” activities with a “should” behavior like exercise. For her, it meant she only got to listen to her escapist audiobooks such as the “Hunger Games” when she went to the gym. Her subsequent study of 226 university students and faculty found that those who were given access to free audiobooks for use only at the gym boosted their gym attendance 51 percent over the control group, which was only given a gift card for books and simply encouraged to use them at the gym. It also works with a podcast or television show you like, saysFishbach says.

4. Put money on it.

A similarly effective strategy researchers says is to bet money on the outcome of your goal, agreeing to forfeit it should you fail. Online weight-loss challenges such as DietBet allow people to do just that and actually make a few bucks when they meet their goal. In Milkman’s previous research, participants who bet money on their goal lost 14 pounds more than the control group.

5. Seek support.

Find a fitness mentor who has been where you are and succeeded, or tap into online weight-loss or fitness communities, where you can log your workouts, vent and seek advice.

6. Keep moving forward, no matter the pace.

Just because you don’t meet your goal doesn’t mean you are a failure, Fishbach says. “[Some people are] too optimistic in their New Year’s resolutions and say they will go to the gym four times a week but end up going twice,” she says. “Twice for me is still something.” That two times a week might be more than you did last year. Celebrate any gains you have achieved, and steadily work to build on them throughout the year.

Look for more of the Behavior Change for Good team’s cutting-edge research and targeted advice designed to help you sustain a healthy lifestyle in 24Life in the months ahead.

Photo credit: Jacques van Zyl, Stocksy; Courtesy Max Bazerman; Wavebreakmedia, Thinkstock; Courtesy Ayelet Fishbach

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