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7 ways to keep your New Year's resolutions

New Year's Eve is a time of new beginnings. It's the time to shut the door on the mistakes of old and vow to do better next year. Unfortunately, whether it's getting finances in better shape, losing weight or quitting a smoking habit, few New Year's resolutions make it through February.

Indeed, a study by the authors of a book on behavioral change found that 98% of those who made New Year's resolutions failed to change their bad behaviors. The problem isn't willpower, said Joseph Grenny, the best-selling co-author of "Change Anything." It's really that the deck is stacked against change. Your habits, friends and even the television shows you watch, are likely to encourage the status quo.

Few people understand the multitude of factors that hold us back from changing behaviors so we imagine that the problem is simply a lack of willpower, he added. In fact, what's usually lacking are the skills to identify and remove the hurdles that trip us up.

Unless you want to live up to those "never change" yearbook cliches, it's time to take a look at seven ways to beat the odds and keep your New Year's resolutions.

1. Baby steps

Take baby steps

The best way to sabotage positive change is to set goals that are unreachable. You don't try to lose five pounds, for example, you expect to lose 30. Ideally by February. Your goal demands hitting the gym every day for hours, despite whatever personal commitments might have kept you from regular exercise in the past. Diet? You're going to give up all starches, sweets and alcohol. You can eat carrots. Just carrots. In fact, you are going to diet and exercise until you look better than Alessandra Ambrosio. (Sure. Me too. Or, maybe, I'll just vow not to have Almond Roca for breakfast.)

The problem? After months of sacrifice, you still won't look like Alessandra Ambrosio. That's not because you haven't made progress -- that's because we're not all made to look like supermodels. (And that's not a bad thing.) Yet, because you've set an unreachable ideal, you're bound to feel demoralized and likely give up, even if you've made significant strides in the right direction.

In reality, you'll do much better by setting realistic and attainable goals. A study by Northwestern Mutual found that the top way that people achieved success was by taking baby steps. They set small interim goals. Once they achieved that first step, they were encouraged. Better yet, the next step now appeared (and was) less daunting. That's a smart strategy regardless of the goal.

So pick something -- some little thing that you want to change. If you're goal is to lose weight, figure out a sustainable plan to lose five pounds over the course of a month. At the end of the month, make your next goal to exercise more and simply not gain back the five pounds you lost. In month three, if you have more to lose, set another goal. Make your plan slow, steady and sustainable.

What if your goal is to pay off debts? The same method applies. Pick the credit card with the lowest balance and figure out a realistic plan to pay it off within a few months, without boosting the balances on your other cards. Once that payment is gone, attack the next credit card and the next. Pretty soon, your consumer debt will be nothing but a memory.

2. Envision rewards

Envision the rewards:

Two of the most common New Year's resolutions are to lose weight and quit smoking. Either can improve your health, but the health benefits are just a start. Acknowledging the many ways you could benefit might help you stick with the program.

Let's say you want to quit your pack-a-day smoking habit. Because that's such a tall order, you might take the first step of cutting back to, say, two packs, rather than seven, each week. Even in the least-expensive states (where cigarette taxes haven't yet hit the roof), a pack of Marlboro's costs roughly $5, according to Buying smokes in the most expensive state (New York), could set you back nearly $12 a pack. So dropping five packs per week saves, conservatively, $25 - $30 a week in tobacco costs alone.

If your interim step of cutting back allows you to cut the smoking habit completely, you will find that you'll also save a fortune on health insurance. Companies are increasingly passing on the cost of expensive behaviors to workers, or giving discounts to those who maintain a healthy weight and habits. And the differential is noteworthy. According to eHealthInsurance, the average smoker pays between 14% and 23% more for medical insurance than a non-smoker.

The bottom line: The pack-a-day smoker who quits the habit is likely to save between $135 and $350 per month -- somewhere between $1,620 and $4,200 a year -- which could pay for a very nice little summer vacation.

3. Create a distraction

Create a distraction:

In the 1960s, a psychologist named Walter Mischel studied impulse control by putting marshmallows in front of a group of kids and telling them not to eat them. The scientists told the children that if they didn't eat the marshmallow, they'd get a second one later. They then left the room for 15 minutes. 

But there in the quiet room, fixated on the marshmallow, only one-third of the kids managed to resist the treat long enough to get another. Those kids grew up to be better students, happier and more successful. The world said: Sure, people with willpower are fortunate. But we'd probably eat the marshmallow.

Joseph Grenny, who repeated the experiments decades later, found that the key wasn't just willpower. If you taught kids ways to distract themselves from focusing on the marshmallow, you could boost their ability to resist. They taught kids to look away; recite passages from their favorite books; play a game. It turns out that distraction is a powerful aid to willpower.

When you know you're trying to change a deeply ingrained habit, plan your distractions in advance for the times that you know your willpower will be most sorely tested. If lunchtime is when you're most likely to break the diet or need a smoke, plan to run an errand instead. It's after work? Plan a walk; call a friend; read; meditate; sign up for yoga. Find some other activity that gets you past the moments of greatest craving.

4. Conscript a buddy

Conscript a buddy:

The people who surround us make up another of the invisible factors that encourage the status quo. Smokers often hang out with other smokers. If you spend too much, you probably have a group of shopping buddies who spend just as prodigiously as you. If you're overweight, there's a good chance that your friends and family are too. And, often, when you want to change, the people around you are going to discourage it

To be a success, you need to conscript active and supportive friends to help you. One "active" friend, who is willing to gently remind you to stick with the program, can boost your chance of success by 35%; two active friends increase your chance of success by an astounding 60%, according to Grenny. So either convince your friends to support you, or spend more time with friends who will.

5. Be accountable

Be accountable:

Need to stick with a budget? Write it down. Want to quit smoking? Jot down when you smoke, why and what you're going to do to change the setting or situation to help alter your behavior. Want to lose weight? Start journaling what you're eating each day. If you have a bad resolution day, write down what happened and why. (And bad doesn't mean that you broke the resolution, it could just mean that it was a particularly tough day to keep it.)

You can debate about why putting goals and progress on a piece of paper works. Some say it's just a reminder; others contend it makes us accountable. Sometimes, it reveals patterns of behavior that we simply didn't recognize as hurdles that are holding us back. In any event, being accountable and writing down goals are cited as key factors that helped more than half of those surveyed succeed, according to the Northwestern Mutual study.

If you're looking for tools or web sites that help you stay accountable when you're dieting, here's a link to a blog called Healthy Medium, written by Jessica Hummel, who is the dietician at the Biggest Loser Resort in Malibu, Calif.

6. Allow for mistakes

Allow mistakes:

Almost everyone has done it. You're on a diet, but you just can't resist having a piece of your friend's birthday cake. Ah, you say, the diet is blown. Might as well have another piece of cake; some of those candy-coated cashews and the puff-pastry appetizer, right?

The better approach is to recognize that no one is perfect. You might occasionally backslide. But two steps forward and one step back is still one step forward. Don't stop going forward just because you slipped up. Consider, instead, a healthy response that lets you compensate -- have an extra glass of water instead of a glass of wine; take the dog on a long walk; scrub the floor (seriously, it's good exercise). Giving in once and a while shouldn't equate to giving up. 

Some 62% of those who reached their goals said allowing for the occasional mistake played a key role in their ultimate success.

7. Reward yourself

Reward yourself:

Set up a series of rewards that you can focus on when the going gets tough. Write them down. When you're struggling, spend a moment measuring your progress to the goal -- and envisioning your ability to enjoy whatever treat you've established, whether that's a luxury vacation or a hot fudge sundae. 

Remind yourself of the progress you've made, and how great it will feel to enjoy a well earned reward. Rewards really are sweeter when you feel you've earned them.

Happy New Year.