How Do You Set a New Year's Resolution That Actually Sticks?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Editor's Note: Obesity expert Dr. Martin Binks contributes regular guest posts to the dailySpark.

We have all been there. The new year rolls around and we take stock of our lives and the way we live them. We decide that this year is going to be different. This year we are going to keep those New Year's resolutions and take on a healthy lifestyle! Then we set a goal: I am going to get healthy. I am going to lose weight. I am going to start exercising. We set the date: January 1, of course. After all it is a brand new year, the first of the month--perfect! Then we go about our holiday of choice celebrating with family, overindulging a little and forgetting all about our new “plan" until we wake up New Year's Day without any real plan to accomplish the goals we have set out. The goal itself is often unrealistic too. It often involves setting up a strict and unforgiving diet that does not allow for a variety of foods or planning to do some ridiculously overexerting several-hours-a-day gym routine.

Then of course we realize that January 1 is still a holiday and think we might as well delay until the second. After all who can watch football or the NHL's Winter Classic without snacks and beverages? Good, so tomorrow it is! January second is still just as good as “New Year's." However, on that date we realize we still have all sorts of wonderful holiday treats in the house. Leftovers, food gifts, beer, wine and so forth. It's a shame to waste all that, so the logical choice is to wait a week or so before getting started. Now it's January 6, and you realize that it is no longer a fresh start to the year, you can't boast to friends about keeping your resolution and what you are left with is about the same as that with which you struggle every year, the need to adopt a healthier lifestyle on a regular old day without any fanfare.

So does this mean New Year's resolutions are a bad idea--of course not! The error was in the lack of clearly defined and realistic behavioral steps within the goals coupled with the all-or-nothing approach to setting the goal. The goal to lose weight tells us very little about what we need to do in order to achieve that goal. It does not outline the specific steps that must be taken like shopping to get healthy foods in the house, attending to reducing portions, packaging up extra leftovers in individual calorie-controlled portions for use over time or setting up a realistic exercise schedule. Instead of expecting yourself to stop eating ‘bad' foods abruptly on New Year's Day, why not simply decide to take some time that day to write out the plan and work on preparing in some of the ways I have listed above. Set gradual goals that will help ease you into the whole thing and allow some flexibility to enjoy some of the leftover holiday fare while still moving toward your health goals. Perhaps focus on getting at least a 30-minute walk under your belt each day and build toward a more complete exercise plan over a few weeks time and so on. By taking this gradual approach you will feel in control and still make progress without necessarily feeling deprived and overwhelmed.

As I write this I know there are many folks who will feel that this is just making excuses and that you need to step up and just do it! So maybe a more abrupt all-or-nothing approach is the right thing for some people, you know what works for you. The most important thing is to ask yourself is what works best for you--but answer the question honestly. If jumping in and throwing out all the junk food, setting up a strict plan, and throwing yourself right into it has worked in the past then go for it. Just be on the lookout for the signals that this all-or-nothing approach is about to stop working and be ready to adjust so you don't fall from 100% to nothing overnight. Perhaps you notice food or exercise boredom creeping in, then do something to spice up your routine. Perhaps it's that you feel tired or weak; maybe you are overdoing it in the gym or are not getting enough nutrition? Take a look at what you are doing and adjust as needed. Remember, the key is listening to your mind and body and making adjustments along the way to keep the forward progress moving and avoid slipping right off the plan.

Below you will find some simple steps for goal setting. You can find more detail on these and other topics at the Healthy Weight Center on my site.

Setting Goals: 4 Core Elements

Make sure your goals stand up to the following tests--Are they realistic, specific and measurable. Then be sure to plan for when things don't go as expected with your back-up plan
  • Realistic

    The goals you set have to be real in the context of your life. They cannot be based on some ideal version of your real situation and more importantly don't base them on some change you are ‘going' to make that will give you more time. Set your first goals according to what your life looks like right now! Look for changes that you can insert into your current schedule. If you are too busy to cook--then don't plan to cook at home every day. Start by finding healthy calorie controlled prepared foods that don't take a lot of time to prepare. If you can't see yourself fitting in gym time, add short walks into your day.

  • Specific

    Make each goal very specific. Make sure that both the steps to achieving it and that the results are readily observable so there is no guesswork or grey in your ability to know what to do. For example, don't say I will exercise tomorrow. Rather say at 10:30 during my break I will walk for 20 minutes around the halls of my building and up 2 flights of stairs.

  • Measurable

    In the example I just gave it is easy to measure the extent to which you completed the goal (number of minutes walked) and it is also easy to add up the total minutes per week you accumulate.

  • Back-Up Plan

    Once you have set out some realistic, specific and measurable goals you need to set up a second set that mirror these goals but are a little more forgiving. These are useful when the unexpected happens. So for example, using our break-time walking example, we all have days where a 20 min break is impossible--maybe a last minute task or meeting was dumped on your desk. For these occasions, instead of doing nothing (which feels like failure and can trigger a bigger slide) simply do 5 or 10 minutes. While it is less than ideal it IS still part of "the plan" and thus will have you feeling psychologically that you succeeded whereas skipping altogether would feel like failure.

Follow these steps and you might find your desire to achieve a healthier weight or a healthier more active lifestyle is fulfilled over the next several months. By making a resolution to follow this type of broader more flexible plan as opposed to only focusing on the singular outcome (like pounds lost) you may feel more confident and better able to cope with the reality of your specific life situation and how it influences your ability to lose weight.

Dr. Martin Binks is Clinical Director and CEO of Binks Behavioral Health PLLC. He is also Assistant Consulting Professor, Division of Medical Psychology, Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Duke University Medical Center. His professional activities include direct patient care, research, consultation services and the development of evidence-based obesity and health promotion programs for healthcare, research and corporate wellness environments.

Dr. Binks received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Fairleigh Dickenson University, trained at the Bronx VA Medical Center and completed pre and postdoctoral training in behavioral medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. He is the former Director of Behavioral Health, Research, and New Business and Strategic Alliances at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center. Dr Binks has worked extensively in the areas of obesity, health & wellness promotion, neuropsychology, substance abuse treatment, post-traumatic stress disorder and spinal cord injury.

Dr. Binks has authored and co-authored multiple research publications and the book The Duke Diet and has appeared on MSNBC Countdown with Keith Olberman, ABC news "On Call”, NPR, Lifetime Television, WGN, 700 Club and is a featured contributor on He is regularly called upon for commentary on a wide range of health and psychological topics in a variety of national publications and websites including USA Today, Washington Post, LA Times, Oprah Magazine, GX Magazine, AOL Health, Fitness, Men’s and Women’s Health Magazines Reuters and the Associated Press. Dr. Binks has been a contributor with the Army National Guard Decade of Health and Wounded Warriors Programs and is a member of several corporate advisory boards.

His research interests include technology-based healthcare delivery, obesity treatment, non alcoholic fatty liver disease, and overall health promotion. He serves as a reviewer on several scientific journals Dr. Binks contributes to healthcare provider education through his work with students and trainees and by lecturing nationally in the areas of obesity management, health promotion and behavioral medicine. Dr. Binks is currently active in several leadership positions at the national scientific organization The Obesity Society.

Dr. Binks works directly with health coaching clients from around the world through in-person, telephone and web-based technology and also offers individual psychotherapy at the Durham, N.C., location. He can be reached through

Do you set New Year's resolutions? Do you stick with them?

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Very interesting and helpful article Report
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New Year's day is just another day. My resolutions are One Day At A Time. Report
No new years anything. It's just another lap around our sun. Report
Very good points Report
I don't believe in making resolutions. I did set realistic goals; in fact I have 17 small ones along the way to my final goal. I've reached 2 in the month since I joined SP but I haven't set a date for any goals so I won't be discouraged if they're not achieved 'on schedule.' Report
The last resolution I made I actually was not to make any more resolutions. I like others now just make goals I want to reach for that year. Most are usually fitness goals. Run 5k, ride my bike for 20 miles, hike a certain mountain, etc. I have been able to accomplish most of what I put down now. Report
Thanks for the reminder about setting realistic goals. I especially appreciated the advice on developing 2 sets--1 for the backup plan. I've never thought of doing that before but probably helpful for us perfectionist types that feel like a failure if we don't meet our too extreme goals. Guess I better start working on the backup plan set, so I can still feel like I'm on track even if I don't hit the ideal goals. Report
Don't make them anymore... Report
I don't make resolutions anymore because I didn't stick with them for more then a couple weeks.

I make monthly goals....easier to follow through with. Report
nice! I never really like making resolutions and usually prefer to make them before the new year so I'm practicing them before the new year starts Report
That's the most realistic article I've read concerning all the pressure many of us force ourselves to go through to lose weight, and I dislike the silly "New Year's Resolution" tradition anyway. One thing I wish would be stressed more, is the constant use of the terms "cheating" or being "bad" or "good", or "sinful" or whatever concerning a person's eating pattern. These are such old fashioned things to say, and don't help anyone with their eating/overeating issues. Let's all try to not say them gang!!! Report
I set New Year's resolutions, to try to lose weight, and get fit, be a better person, and so forth. Last year I did great and lost 24 lbs., but alas did gain about 14 back. This is a whole new Year, and I'm in for the long haul. I'll try to get 20 lbs off, and take better care of myself. Report
great blog. i don't make resolutions. i make a commitment and that way i am more accountable to keep it. Report
Great blog. I never used to make resolutions until joining Spark, when I started setting over-arching BEHAVIOR-BASED goals for the year. I don't set goals that are all about a result (lose 15 pounds) or a vague notion (be neater). Instead, it's all about things I can DO to be better, like train to run a 10k, or spend 10 minutes a day straightening up the kitchen. Report
Since 1955, on every New Year's Eve, at 11:59.55pm, I resolve not to make any New Year's Resolutions through the entire year. And each year I have succeed at not breaking that resolution. Report
Thank you. Report
Great article. I felt like I was reading my own story of setting myself up for failure. Hopefully I recognize what I am doing and succeed this time. Report
I don't make New Year's Resolutions, but this year I did make some goals that I want to meet. I want to lose 25 pounds and I want to train for a 10k. I have run two 5ks, but I didn't run much at all in the month of December (though I did use the elliptical and got in my strength-training). I pledged to give up all refined sugar for 30 days (and then I'll re-evaluate how to handle incorporating it back into my diet), and I pledged to start journaling my fitness and food on Spark. (I had quit journaling in November 2009 b/c my nutritionist said I was so obsessed with it that it was giving me serious anxiety; though I remained on Spark and kept reading all the articles, blogs, journals, and quotes that I could get my hands on!) I wrote all my goals on paper, gave myself a timeline to lose the weight and run a 10k (6 months) and wrote HOW I was going to do it. Now I need to find a 10k happening in June, in my local area, and sign up for it! Report
like JAVABOOKGIRL, i have used the SMART method: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timing.
Be as specific as you can (not just "be healthier" but "eat within the specified calorie range")
make sure you have a way to measure it ("1300-1600 cal per day")
make sure it is something that you can actually accomplish/attainable/realistic (it is probably unrealistic to think that you will lose 100+ lbs in a short period of time, so don't set yourself up for failure)
and you have to put a time limit on it.
the weight loss target on sparkpeople is great for this - you can either pick the date (time) or the end weight (specific), and the lbs per week (measurable)...the perfect example (as long as you are realistic)!
I knew I would not be able to make a resolution I could keep for an entire year, so two years ago I resolved to exercise 30 minutes a day JUST FOR THE MONTH OF JANUARY! Two years and over fifty pounds later I am still exercising. This year I set a calorie cap of 1300 for each day this month. I am slightly below my goal now and trying to lose a bit more so I don't have to worry about going above that. Report
I do make resolution: the same every year! To lose weight, live a healthier lifestyle! And each year, I fail. Trying again. This article was helpful in pointing out the mistakes I had made in the past.

And what "CARRKM" wrote is a great idea! My b'day is mid-year too, so I'm going to give myself a mid-year review, too. Thanks! Report
I don't make resolutions, but I do set goals for the year. My birthday is mid-year, so I re-evaluate then. Works for me! :-) Report
It's a good blog! Although I make 'commitments' at various points through the year (summer and winter solstice, vernal and autumnal equinox, for instance) I gave up on NYR because it's become such a game. And, as I've commented elsewhere, I prefer 'commitment' to 'resolution,' because of the different meanings and connotations of the words.

For me, the biggest thing has been to learn how to make the resolution/commitment concrete--and doable! (a previous blogger resolved to find a job, for instance--that's not something entirely within a person's control, so the resolve can be strong, but still fail, through no fault of the "resolver"). I can control food, choices about exercise, but I can't control the weather or (often) the outcome. I focus on process. Report
I stopped making New Year's Resolutions years ago. Why ? Because I was never able to keep them or achieve them. For a couple of years, my resolution was to find a new job. Well, with the down turned economy, that hasn't happened.

Nah, resolutions just don't work for me. Had to find better ways to find motivations to achieve my goals. Report
I make resolutions throughout the year. I find New Year's a time to renew or re-examine some of them and, as suggested, do some more planning around my goals. Report
For myself I never do a NEW YEARS resolution. I do monthly resolutions. This resolution began on Spark almost one year ago. It was the first 28 day challenge for a few of us on the Readers of the Spark team. We are a small group and that really helps. We keep reminding one another of the help we give to our friends. I believe it works best when just a few commit to doing this together. Whenever the thread gets too many people it loses people because they have not bonded together to get it done. Small committed groups make the difference. Report
I love making resolutions, all throughout the year! Some I keep, and some I don't. But makin them is always fun and for the ones I keep, very enjoyable. Great article! :) Report
Great article and very practical advice! Thanks for contributing! Report
In the past I have always set general resolutions (or goals) such as "I will lose weight this year", " I will exercise more", etc. Now I am more knowledgeable (through Spark) about how to set goals that I can accomplish. I have not set up a back up plan though and that seems like a really good idea. Thanks for the info on your blog. Report
I am way done with making resolutions! But these goal setting advices are really helpfull..thanks Report
I usually don't make a resolution because I never follow through with them. This year I plan to make it the year that I did it. 2011 is my year to get fit and healthy. Report
Great Blog Thanks Report
Where I work, whenever we set goals they need to be SMART goals. Very similar to yours; Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-line Friendly Report
And in New Orleans, the Mardi Gras season (think King Cakes) begins on Jan 6, and nearly every office and/or home has at least one a week! It's easier to make resolutions on Ash Wednesday--the begining of Lent. We're supposed to give up things we love at that time. :) Report
I've never been able to keep resolutions in the past, so I decided that this year I needed to try something different. I didn't make resolutions on Jan. 1. I made them on 12/19/10. I figured if I could get through the holidays sticking to my plan, I could keep it up for a year. So far so good. It's only the 4th day of the year, and it's my 17th day of sticking to my plan! I think it has to do with momentum. Report
I knew those excuses would set me back, so instead of starting my plan in January, I started at the beginning of December. A lot of people told me "It'll be so hard to keep this up around the holidays!" I said to myself, "I plan to cheat a little but be responsible around the holidays. If my mom makes a cherry glazed ham, I'm going to eat some of it, but I'm going to stop when I'm not hungry anymore, not when I have to unfasten my pants." I did a pretty good job of not overindulging. I conditioned my exercise BEFORE I had a chance to see all the people in the gym and think, "Well, there isn't enough room." This is a great article! Report
Wow! I think I might do that during my breaks now! Instead of relaxing in the back and whatnot. Though what sucks about my job is that I'm on my feet all day anyway, but I'm not always active I guess.
I will try my best! Thank you so much! Report
One important point that was not mentioned - or if it was I missed it in spite of reading this blog twice - is forgiving yourself for minor breaks in the resolution and not giving up entirely for one small indiscretion. We are so hard on ourselves that when we have a slip-up we treat it like the end of the world and use it as an excuse to quit altogether. Relax, a resolution is supposed to be for the year, not just a minute! Report
Looks like I've been doing part of this this time around without even knowing it. I'm the "just jump in" girl who two days or two weeks later just throws in the towel. This time, I'm saying "Yay me!" for the areas I'm doing better in rather than those I'm perfecting, and the ones that seem to be bombing, I'm thinking about them, asking for help and support from my SP friends, and making alternate plans. Pretty soon, I'll really be on the ball with new routines and adding more healthy living to those until I finally have a wonderfully healthy lifestyle. "YAY ME!" Report
I have read about so many who have lost huge amounts of weight when they were bedridden or confined to a wheelchair, or had some other physical disability. I have been on Sparkpeople for 3 months and have gone from 43% body fat to 37% body fat. I have lost inches, but I have not lost any weight other than just a couple of pounds. I don't eat candy, chips, cakes, ice cream, etc. and I never have. I do drink pepsi, 3-4 a day, but have cut down to 1-2 a day. I have been tracking all my food and have only gone over once or twice. I have been eating 5 fruits and vegetables a day and drinking 8 or more glasses of water everyday since starting at Sparkpeople. So why haven't I lost any weight. This is really starting to concern me. In the past 3 months I have done an hour of water aerobics at least once a week. Many weeks I went 3-4 times. When I can't go to the gym I do at least one of the cardio videos, or I walk on the treadmill for 15-20 minutes, alternating between 3.5 rps, then 4.5 rps (4,5 I can only do for 30 seconds at a time) I am on Advair for emphysema and Aggrenox for stroke, and lipitor for cholesterol. Could any of these medications be the cause of me not being able to lose weight? Sorry this is so long but it is really starting to bug me and I don't want to lose my motivation now. Thanks, Sue Report
I've make one this year and tha this to strengthen my walk with God! All other things are secondary! This should be easy as He walks with me daily! Report
I am a psychology major, and in my counseling skills class we went over the stages of change - and this was totally part of it! If the goal isn't realistic, there's no way it's going to happen - and if it's not measurable, you can't see your progress! Report
We covered this in school. It really makes sense the more specific = the more sucessful! :) Report
This is the FIRST year in a long number of years (as far as I can remember) that weight loss ISN'T included in my New Year's Resolution. "WHY?" some might ask .... because I'm now 6 pounds away from my goal and SOOOOO confident that I'll get there soon (because I have now made LIFESTYLE CHANGES) that it's not even an issue!!!!! All thanks to!!!! Report