5 tips for keeping your New Year’s resolutions

Many people make New Year's resolutions aimed at helping them live long and prosper -- save more, spend less, lose weight, get more exercise. But good intentions aren't enough, and our resolve often weakens.

To add steel to these annual vows, here are five tips drawn from the latest behavioral science research that can help keep us motivated and on track.

1. Meet your future self

If you’re resolving to save more for retirement, then you can amp up your motivation by seeing a picture of what you might look like in your 60s, 70s, or 80s. Researchers affiliated with the Stanford Center on Longevity found that people who saw computer-projected pictures of themselves in the future were willing to save more for retirement.

One easy (and free) way to see the future you is to use Merrill Edge’s innovative online software called Face Retirement. All you need is an Internet connection and a built-in camera on your computer. And if your resolutions include losing weight or stopping smoking, Aprilage.com is a website that lets you compare side-by-side photos of the future you with alternative lifestyle outcomes regarding smoking and weight gain. It’s an eye-opener!

2. Use the power of words

How you phrase your resolution can increase your chances of success, according to research conducted by Stanford behavioral scientists. If you phrase your resolution in a way that establishes and affirms your basic identity, it will be more powerful than if you simply resolved to carry out a specific action. For example, instead of resolving to save more or spend less in 2014, your resolution could be phrased as follows: “I am a responsible saver, and as a result I will have a secure retirement.”

According to research, you'll then be motivated to save enough to affirm your basic identity. If you face a threat to your resolution, such as a temptation to splurge and blow your budget or to stop saving, your affirmation will help you withstand the threat.

You could also use the power of affirmation to lose weight or exercise more. Your resolution could be, “I am a healthy person who takes responsibility for my health.” Then, to affirm your identity, you’ll be motivated to seek the right types and amounts of food and exercise more.

3. Set the trigger

Research conducted by Dr. BJ Fogg, who founded the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford, shows that the strategic use of triggers can increase the odds of succeeding when it comes to changing to healthy behaviors. For example, if you want to jog each morning to get more exercise, put your running shoes by the front door the night before. If you want to learn more about finance or save more, sign up for a service that will send you regular reminders and help you manage your finances, such as HelloWallet.

4. Tap the power of inertia

People tend to continue doing what they’ve been doing; we often don’t make the effort it might take to change our behavior in a healthy way. For example, we might continue spending all of our paycheck each month on the usual things simply because that’s what we normally spend our money on.

But we can also use the power of inertia in our favor. Saving through an automatic payroll deduction tool, such as a 401(k), 403(b), or 457 plan, at work is a great way to save for retirement. The savings are automatically deducted from your paycheck, and your “normal” paycheck is the net amount after the savings has been withheld. Thereafter, it will take some effort for you to change your savings amount, so the usual outcome is that you’ll continue saving the amount you initially decided on. Make sure you save enough to make a difference, however; otherwise, you’ll be using inertia to save an insufficient amount.

If you’re not eligible for such a plan at work, many banks and mutual fund companies will set up an automatic savings plan from your checking account -- ask your investment firm if they have this service.

5. Reward yourself

Everyone needs motivation to stay the course. So set goals to attain certain milestones, such as a target amount of savings or weight loss. When you reach that target, celebrate and buy yourself a small reward, such as a dinner on the town or some item you've been eyeing at the store. That way, you make it fun and it doesn’t feel like all your efforts are a sacrifice.

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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