Health Matters

Resolve to Succeed: How to Make Changes That Last

Jan. 5, 2018

Will this be the year you stick to your resolutions and make some positive changes? Some data show that 80 percent of those who make New Year’s resolutions abandon their plans by mid-February. Community health expert Dr. Geoffrey Williams shares tips that may help you beat those odds and reach your goals.2019 resolutions

Make it Matter

When you set your goal, choose something that is important to you personally. Consider why it is worth it to make this change for yourself. When you value it personally, it is more likely to be a satisfying change that you will continue.

Consider how it relates to other important goals in your life. Choose things that may improve your health or your personal development, contribute to your community, and help you to relate positively with others.

It also helps to tap into your curiosity or something you have an active interest in learning more about.

Plan Your Approach

Should you go all-out and race toward your goal or take it slow and steady?

I prefer the slow-and-steady approach as long as it challenges you to move forward and is not boring. However, it’s fine to have lofty goals, such as running a 10K race, but if you have not been running regularly, be sure to set intermediate targets to build your stamina to reach your larger goal. It’s fine to start small and build up to your goals, but it’s more important to do something nearly every day to establish a pattern.

Allow yourself good and bad days. Expect that you will fail sometimes—remember you are learning something new. Motivation lasts longer and we are more satisfied if we can find the positive in what we accomplish, rather than blaming ourselves.

Take Affirmative Actions

People seem to do better at moving toward a positive goal, or establishing a new behavior, rather than moving away and denying behavior. Positive energy is more sustaining because it is satisfying. Try to see every attempt you make as a success—you actually did change your behavior, even if you didn’t fully succeed.

That said, some important changes require stopping something, like quitting smoking, drugs or alcohol, or avoiding overeating. In these circumstances, look for replacement behaviors that are positive, interesting and can distract you from your old patterns.

If you are stopping smoking, change your brand to one you don’t like and don’t smoke in the same place or while doing the same things. Hold the cigarette in your opposite hand and find things to do that occupy your hands, mouth, and taste buds. Knitting, doing puzzles, or washing dishes after your meals rather than smoking can break the pattern, and can distract your brain from “expecting” the next cigarette or drink. This can trigger cravings. Big tastes like cinnamon sticks or citrus fruits can distract your mouth and taste buds. Be patient with yourself. It takes 2-3 months to get un-addicted, and it takes a month of a new behavior pattern before it becomes routine.

Seek Support

It can be very motivating to have support from a partner. Family members can be helpful as long as they are not negative and nagging. Find people who will be positive about your efforts, no matter how small, and avoid criticizing a partial failure (no change attempt is a total failure). Include your children, if you want them to see something positive that you are changing. Being a role model can be just as motivating as why you are making the change for yourself.

Some people feel embarrassed about a behavior and want to work on it alone or with non-family members first, before including others. If you feel that you would be embarrassed or overly criticized by your friends and family, then don’t include them as you get started. You want positive energy to motivate you to make it last and to be satisfying enough to keep it going over time.

Learn from a Pro

As you plan out your change, consider spending time learning about the new behavior—whether that’s consulting an expert, reading about it, or watching a video to acquire new skills. Interest and curiosity feed learning and mastery motivation and can make your success more likely.

This helped me when I decided to build a boat. I like working with wood, but there were many things I needed to understand about how to use epoxy and the wire used to stitch the planks of wood to the frame. Sometimes I could figure it out, and other times I needed to watch a video or talk to someone with experience. It was important to not criticize myself. After more than a year, I finished the boat. It’s not perfect, but it is mine. Now I need to learn to sail it!

Tempted to Quit?

If you feel like giving up on your goal, consider taking a short break before abandoning it entirely. Remember why you were making the change in the first place. If you value it for yourself, you are likely to find the energy to try again. Avoid being critical. It takes time to change your patterns, to develop new skills, and to be satisfied with our efforts. Consider breaking your goal down into smaller steps and celebrate those accomplishments along the way.

The truth is there are times we simply lose interest. If that’s the case, it may be time to try something else. Only you know. Perhaps you can keep the same general goal, but approach it in a different way.


Geoffrey C Williams, MD, PhD


Geoffrey C. Williams, M.D., Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Medicine/General Medicine, Psychiatry, Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology, and medical director of the Healthy Living Center at the Center for Community Health & Prevention at the University of Rochester Medical Center.