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Why New Year’s resolutions fail… and how to make them stick

Every year, millions of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, but research suggests only a fraction actually keep them.

Things like weight loss and getting more exercise are typically among the most popular resolutions, but this year a new Marist poll found that “being a better person” tops the list.

“For many people, this is generally a time of year when there is reflection about how their year has gone, and what they’re looking forward to in the coming year,” Jane Ehrman, a behavioral health specialist at the Wellness Institute of Cleveland Clinic, told CBS News. “It’s also a time for people to check in with themselves and see what they can improve on in the coming year.”

But if you’re like most people, your resolve to get in better shape, declutter your home, learn a new language, or “be a better person” likely dissipates by the time February rolls around.

The reasons this happens are varied, but experts say there are several common pitfalls that keep people from achieving their New Year’s resolutions.

“’New Year’s resolution’ is kind of this buzzword that can make people crazy,” said Dr. Stephen Graef, a sports psychologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Most people have a toxic relationship with the term. So from the beginning we set ourselves up for failure because we know that anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of people are going to ultimately get off their path of resolution.”

Some of the biggest mistakes people make, he says, are setting goals that are too broad, too big, or too many.

Making a resolution to lose weight, for example, is too general a notion that does not give you something specific to work towards or a well-defined path to follow. Similarly, if you want to be more physically fit, but have barely gotten off the couch in two years, planning to run a marathon isn’t going to be feasible. And aspiring to not only lose weight and run a marathon, but also learn a new skill, a new language, and a new instrument? That’s just setting yourself up for failure.

“I think we try to set not only too extensive of a goal but also too many goals,” Graef told CBS News. “We might really try to shoot for the moon too quickly and that doesn’t work out, or not only do we want to go to the moon but we want to go to Mars and Neptune and Saturn. And if we try to do all of those, we don’t have the mental and physical resources to be able to accomplish that.”

Fortunately, avoiding these pitfalls and adopting some strategies to stay on track can help you achieve your goals. Follow these expert tips to stick to — and actually achieve — your resolution for the new year.

Be honest with yourself. 

Often times, we set goals because we think that’s what we’re supposed to do. “Many people don’t make their own resolutions out of what’s most meaningful and desirable for them but they set it out of what other people told them they need to do out of fear or guilt,” said Dr. Karen Lawson, director of the Integrative Health Coaching program at the Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota. “So the motivation doesn’t come from within but comes from the outside and that doesn’t tend to lead to success.” Be honest with yourself and figure out what is important and valuable to you so you can set a goal that comes from within.

Stick to one thing. 

Trying to accomplish multiple goals at once will quickly get overwhelming and only lead to failure. Stick to one thing, master it, and move onto the next. Having trouble deciding which goal to work on first? Graef recommends first focusing on the behaviors that get the mind and body running more effectively, like exercising, eating nutritious foods, or quitting smoking

From there, take inventory of all the goals you have for yourself and figure out which you are most passionate about. “Think to yourself, ‘If I knew that this was going to be my final year on earth, how would I really want to spend that time?’” Graef said. 

Another strategy is to focus on the goals that will benefit you in significant ways. “Am I going to spend three months learning salsa dancing, or if there’s an opportunity in the future to do a lot more public speaking, maybe someone would rather spend those three months on that because they know it’s going to have the most transcendent impact on not only their career but their comfort level in other social settings, as well,” Graef said.

Make SMART goals. 

When it comes to setting goals, stick to the SMART method. That means making your goals:

     Specific
     Measurable
     Achievable
     Relevant
     Time-based

“This gets people to identify very concrete and specific steps,” Lawson said. “You might have a grand goal of ‘I want to be a better person,’ but OK, let’s bring that home and figure out what that actually looks like and how you can move in that direction. It’s not that you can’t have those lofty goals, but bring them down and make them concrete.” For example, if your goal is to think more positive thoughts, Lawson recommends setting an alarm on your watch or phone twice a day and when it goes off, take a moment to think about something specific that you’re grateful for.

Arrange your environment for success

If certain aspects of your environment are hindering your progress, change them. Want to wake up earlier but find yourself hitting snooze every morning? Graef suggests putting your alarm clock on the other side of the room so you will be forced to get up to turn it off. Having trouble making it to the gym? Sleep in your gym clothes to make it easier to get out the door for a morning workout. Can’t stop snacking? Get the junk food out of your pantry and refrigerator and replace them with healthier options like fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

Chart your progress. 

Once you’ve identified your goal and have a specific plan set for how to achieve it, tracking your progress is key to success. “It feels very good to check things off and cross them off, so that’s very rewarding in and of itself,” Graef said. Having a visual picture of your progress can also be helpful. “If on your calendar, you’ve marked off five days in a row where you’ve met your goals, that’s going to really increase the likelihood that you don’t want to break that on the sixth day. It just looks aesthetically pleasing to the human eye to have that consistency in that tracking,” Graef said.

Make yourself accountable. 

Take steps to make yourself accountable for your goals to help stay motivated. For example, if you aim to run a 10K, sign up for one and pay for it in advance. Though Graef notes that this strategy may not work for everyone, announcing your goals on social media can also help some people stay motivated. Alternatively, simply sharing your resolutions with family members and close friends and discussing your progress with them can help keep you on track.

Celebrate successes and be compassionate with yourself when you slip. 

“People on the whole tend to be harder on themselves than they are with other people. They tend to beat themselves up,” Lawson said. “So when we have a day when we fall down on the diet, instead of telling yourself that you’re weak or bad, tell yourself that you had a bad day and that tomorrow’s a new day to start over.” It’s important to be compassionate with yourself, acknowledge your slips, and move on. 

Similarly, celebrating successes — however small — is important to success. “Acknowledge when you had a really great day, or even a really great moment an hour ago,” Lawson said. “Figure out ways to be happy and joyful and congratulatory for when you’re doing it right.”

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    Ashley Welch covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com