How to keep your New Year’s resolutions

Happy 2017! It’s a time of fresh starts, new ideas and building on the good while leaving the bad behind. Well, at least that’s the idea.

Most resolutions, in fact, tend to cluster around four different areas: self-improvement/education, weight, money and relationships.

The challenge is that we’re not very good at changing our behaviors. An estimated 40 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions (more than the total number of people who watch the Super Bowl). Yet, according to research from Dr. John Norcross at the University of Scranton, only 8 percent actually achieve them.

There is also a steep drop-off in terms of length of commitment to these resolutions. Seventy-five percent of resolutions are maintained after the first week. Yet, by the second week of February, as much as 80 percent of resolution makers are dealing with the “remorse of disappointment” (though, if you are in your 20s, you are almost four times more likely to stick with your resolutions than if you are over age 50).

There are many contributors to broken resolutions. If a resolution is too abstract or complex there is a much higher failure rate than goals that are specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and time delimited (SMART). Rather than trying, for example, to get into “fighting shape,” instead resolve to lose two pounds a week for 10 weeks and then stay under a specific weight for the year. It’s also recommended that you flip a resolution into a question. Rather than pledging to start a new business in 2017, ask how you can get your first client. This puts the brain into solution-mode – breaking down the problem, developing actions and setting clear targets.

Self-sabotage is another major obstacle. According to the author of the best-selling “Self-Coaching” series, Joseph Luciani, any changes we make create emotional friction and stress. Overcoming it requires building and sustaining self-discipline. “You need to develop your self-discipline muscle, one challenge at a time,” Luciani shared in a recent article. “Starting today, instead of reflexively feeling a need to minimize or escape the friction involved in change, recognize the need to endure it. Bottom line: Don’t bail!”

North Carolina-based leadership coach Bauback Yeganeh works with individuals and teams on forming new high-performance habits through micro-actions. The concept is that we can break unhealthy routines and create positive trajectories by intentionally practicing focused behaviors throughout the day. He offers five steps for practicing micro-actions: 1) observe yourself in thinner slices of times by slowing down and being intentional about new choices, 2) identify scenarios for different approaches or actions, 3) brainstorm micro-actions that will help you change your routine, 4) identify the one or two micro-actions that will have the greatest impact, and 5) put these small actions into practice. Implementing the “micro-action mindset” provides a practical way for leaders to embrace mindfulness in every day living. Making adjustments to our micro-actions, Yeganeh argues, leads to living with intention and creating success.

In his best-selling book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” Charles Duhigg talks about the “habit loop” – a neurological pattern that governs our habits. This consists of three elements: a cue, a routine and a reward. Breaking bad habits or forming good ones consists of recognizing the cue (i.e. specific time of day when you are restless), developing a healthy routine response (i.e. getting up and connecting with friends rather than eating), and appreciating the reward (i.e. feeling re-energized from socializing rather than eating). Sticking with an adjusted cue-routine-reward approach for more than 90 days and reinforcing it daily can actually help re-wire your brain and make the new habit stick.

But this definitely shouldn’t be a solo venture. Multiple research studies show that the chances of sticking with a resolution go up significantly when you share it with others. Christopher, for example, creates a set of New Year’s goals that he posts to a Google document shared by a set of close friends. Throughout the year, goals are then revisited with updates within an accountable yet supportive environment – dramatically improving the results.

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Now we welcome the new year. Full of things that have never been.” Welcome to 2017. What changes do you want to see? And what steps can you take to make them happen?

Christopher Gergen is a Founding Partner of HQ Community, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.