How to turn your resolutions into healthy habits that will stick

By Bob Sullivan, independent investigative journalist and ongoing contributor for CNBC,, and

OK, take a breath. If you are like many Americans, you just spent the past month overspending and overeating. Roughly half of Americans told surveyers they didn't stick to their holiday budget (the other half probably lied). It's no wonder, half of Americans say there's pressure to spend more than they can afford each holidays season.

It's ok. That's what winter is for. You can get back on track one step at a time, following some simple time-tested practices for developing -- and keeping -- good habits.

Notice, I didn't say, "That's what New Year's Day is for!" The oldest cliché in the self-improvement world is the New Year's Eve Resolution. As the clock strikes midnight and the ball drops in Times Square, people vow to stop smoking or eating desserts or using their credit cards. Most people never even make it to Martin Luther King Day, let alone spring, with these celebration-inspired personal improvement programs. There's some obvious reasons for that. Who sticks to promises they make at midnight after drinking all night?

So, here are a few ways to turn those noble resolutions into habits that will stick.

1. Fight "goal release"

The first week of January can be eye opening, as you receive those December credit card bills and have to squeeze back into office clothes. Sadly, you often can't make up for a week's overspending or overeating with a week of monk-like living. It's much easier to gain weight and lose money than lose weight and save money. And that's the first reason resolutions fail. The mountain seems too high and the progress seems too slow. When the fight seems futile, people suffer what experts sometimes call "goal release." It sounds like this:

"Oh, I'm never getting out of debt anyway. Why bother to save $6 by bringing lunch today?"

2. Be unambitious

There is a simple antidote for goal release. It involves reframing the goal, but more important, it involves shrinking your goals. Don't plan to run a marathon if you're 30 pounds overweight and you don't own running shoes. Start by walking around the block twice a week. Then buy running shoes and jog around the block. Small, achievable goals are the key to keeping yourself on track. It's true that saving $6 today won't pay off your $5,000 credit card bill. But it's a step in the right direction. And you need to keep making those steps, day after day.

3. Specifics, specifics

That $6-a-day lunch saving goal isn't imaginary; it's a really good start. Why? Because it's SPECIFIC. Many people fail at resolutions not only because they are overly ambitious but also because they are overly broad. "Losing weight" and "saving money" aren't goals at all, really; they are dreams...and often, they are mere fantasies. But challenge yourself to save $30 this week on lunches? That's something you can do. Also, if you want to eat 200 fewer calories every day, or add one extra fruit to your daily diet, bringing your lunch will help with that, too. Don't set a big, broad goal. Set a tiny, achievable one. No goal is too small, I like to say. Do one 15-second plank. Bring lunch once a month. That’s how success begins.

4. Make it to February

Speaking of small, achievable goals, don’t think about losing holiday weight in time for summer bathing suit season. That’s too far away, and too abstract. Think about making it past MLK Day and into February. Ariane de Bonvoisin writes in her book The First 30 Days that most people give up on whatever they are trying to change at around the 15-20 day mark. By now you’ve probably guessed that she believes it takes 30 days to really form a new habit. It makes sense. The newness of your fight propels you through the first week or so, as you brag to friends how great you feel hitting the gym before work. The real struggle happens when that newness wears off. So beware that third week of January. Plan for it. Power through it until the calendar turns, and the next thing you know, you’ll be a new person by Valentine’s Day.

5. Fight 'The Plateau Effect'

In our book The Plateau Effect, Hugh Thompson and I wrote about another critical reason many people give up on goals at about the two-week mark -- because that's often when changes seem to stop. We examined contestants on The Biggest Loser TV show and saw a huge drop in weight loss during the second episode of each season, for example. There are biological and chemical reasons for this that take an entire book to explain, but suffice to say that the beginner’s luck of any new adventure you begin -- learning to play piano, running, even falling in love -- ultimately fades and people get stuck. And that's when many people get discouraged and give up. Instead, know that plateaus are perfectly normal, and if you can put your head down and keep going when the late January struggle hits, you'll be a winner by spring.

5. Start a new ritual

New habits can benefit a lot from new rituals. An advertising executive named Richard Kirshenbaum told The New York Times last year that he wanted to find more time to focus without interruption. So he had a driver take him to a restaurant and he’d leave his cell phone in the car for two hours. Only his assistant knew where he was. That’s an extreme example and a luxury you probably don’t enjoy, but with just a little creativity you could form your own version. Say you only want to spend $100 during weekdays. Withdraw $100 on Sunday night and put it in your wallet, then leave your credit cards at home. You’ll be surprised how quickly that will get you to prioritize spending.

6. Understand your motivation

Gretchen Rubin is an expert in habits. Her most recent book, Better than Before, Rubin argues that people need to understand their deepest motivations in order to pull off real change. She groups people into four Tendencies: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. People with these tendencies respond to different strategies. Obligers, for example, do well when they plan to go to the gym with someone else because they hate the thought of letting someone down. The financial version of this would be a 'savings buddy.' Make a pact with a pal that you'll both skip Thursday happy hour and watch Netflix together instead. If you are an Obliger, you wouldn't dare call your friend to cancel. And that force can be stronger than the urge to go out and spend big when Thursday rolls around.

7. Do it when times are good!

It's easy to step on the scale or look at your bank balance in January and commit to making changes. And of course that's a good idea. But it's even better to make changes when times are good, to plan for when they might not be so good. If you just got a raise or a bonus, you might be tempted to plan a trip or buy some clothes; but now is the ideal time to start saving more money for the future. Put that money aside before it leaks into your monthly spending habits. This is precisely the idea behind the Save More Tomorrow plan designed by behavioral scientists Richard H. Thaler and Shlomo Benartz. With Save More Tomorrow, workers pledge to put aside some percentage of future raises - usually half -- as savings. Their studies showed this to be a painless and effective way to increase savings and financial stability.

Several polls and surveys show U.S. adults are feeling better about the economy; in one, nearly 9 in 10 (87 percent) millennials said they believe they will be better off financially in the new year. All of them should vow to set aside at least some of those gains for their futures.

Written on January 12, 2018

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