The No. 1 resolution in the U.S. this time last year was to become more physically fit, up from No. 4 in 2002, according to a Franklin-Covey survey. It’s a good goal. Of course, starting is the easy part. “While visions of improved health and fitness can get most of us started on an exercise program, they’re notoriously weak motivators over the long haul,” says Bob Hopper, Ph.D., and exercise psychology and former NCAA championship swimmer. Luckily, there are some battle-tested strategies you can employ to make sure this year’s resolutions stick. “These strategies come from what athletes do,” Hopper says. “It’s a set of best practices that all athletes use to achieve their performance goals.”
How successful are New Year’s resolutions, anyway? Not very, according to a 2002 study carried out by researchers at the University of Scranton. While 71% of study participants held strong through the first two weeks, that number dwindled to 46% after six months. A 1998 study found that by the two-year mark, just 19% of participants can stay on track. But don’t let that discourage you from declaring some New Year’s resolutions; the same study found that when compared with participants who had the same goals but didn’t declare any resolutions, those who made resolutions were 10 times more likely to achieve their goals.
[See: 7 Simple Resolutions You Can Stick To]
1) Enjoy Yourself: Instead of attacking your weight-loss goal head-on, pick a sport or activity that you will actually enjoy and make that your focus. “The more pleasure we get from a physical activity, the more likely we are to stick to it,” Hopper says. Use the gym to train for your new activity and those extra pounds will take care of themselves. “It’s that pursuit of getting better that develops a passion for an activity,” Hopper explains.
2) Build Your Foundation: A lack of time is a lack of planning. Schedule two workouts this week and make them recurring events in your phone’s calendar. Eventually you’ll expand to three or four, but being too ambitious too early can bring your whole plan down, Hopper says. Develop a strong habit and then that will become a platform for you to build from in the future.”
3) Be a Champion: “A ‘championship moment’ is that space in time when you decide whether or not to deviate from your plan,” Hopper says. It’s that moment when you decide which internal voice to listen to—the one pushing you to do that scheduled workout, or the one trying to convince you that you deserve a break. The key to success, Hopper explains, is to take control of that mental conversation. “You can crowd out the negative voice by having a stronger, more dominant positive voice in mind.”
4) Master the “Self-Con”: Sometimes you just need to outsmart yourself. “Let’s say you stop at a red light and there’s a right turn home and a left turn to the gym; tell yourself, ‘I’m going to make a left turn to the gym and park in the parking lot, and if I’m still tired then I’ll go home,’” Hopper says. “Well now you’re at the gym. You’ve done 90% of the work. Chances are you’re going to go in and take the final step.”
5) See Success You don’t need to sit in a quiet, dark room to use visualization to your advantage. “When people think of visualization, they try to have this image—and it can be a mental image—but it can also be an intense thinking-through of the process,” Hopper says. Focus on the chain of events that will lead up to a championship moment later in the day, like whether to turn left to the gym or swing an easy right back home. Think about how you’ll make that left turn, park in the gym parking lot, change into your workout clothes, and which exercise you’ll do first when you begin. “When you come to that championship moment, the negative voice has not had the chance to be heard because you’ve been visualizing something positive,” Hopper says.