Women playing sports

It's a cycle many people go through: At New Year's, you make resolutions to eat healthier, exercise more, save money, or to achieve another worthy goal—only to find yourself in pretty much the same place at the end of the year.

In fact, most people will have lapsed or slipped on their resolutions by mid-January, according to John C. Norcross, Ph.D., distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania and author of “Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions” (Simon & Schuster, 2013). That causes some people to abandon their goals, leading to feelings of disappointment or failure.

It may help to recast your "resolutions" and approach healthy change with a different mindset. These tips will help.

Don't Feel Time Pressured

The clock on self-improvement doesn't run out on Jan. 1. If you aren't ready to make a change, research shows that simply setting a goal won't work. If January isn't a good time for you, or you aren't clear about what you really want to change, give yourself permission to skip the obligatory New Year's resolution list.

Rephrase Your Objective

Once you are ready to adopt a new habit, frame it as narrowly as you can. If your objective is too broad, you can flounder. For example, “have a salad with dinner every night” is more tangible than “eat more vegetables.”

But even a specific target needs to be broken down even further. Your big-picture vow can be “lose 20 pounds,” but set mini targets to achieve along the way, such as exercising three days a week or losing 5 pounds. Then when you hit each, celebrate. Being positive about small successes helps to keep you moving forward.

Uncover the Root of Your Motivation

“Few people ask themselves why they set the goal they chose,” says Christine Whelan, Ph.D., a clinical professor in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin. “Accomplishing your goal can feel empty without understanding the motivation behind it.”

So if the real reason you want to lose weight is because you want to have more energy to play with your kids, remind yourself of that often. When you’re clear about what you’re aiming for, you have a greater incentive to make the necessary changes to achieve your objective.

Get Your Priorities Straight

One of the many reasons resolutions fizzle is that we may not think first about how we’re going to fit them into an already packed schedule.

More on Diet & Exercise

“Sit down with your calendar and be brutally honest about what you’ll have to say no to in order to make time to achieve your goal,” Whelan says.

For example, if your resolution is get to the gym five days per week, that’s an hour of workout time, plus showering, changing, and driving back and forth—meaning those five gym sessions could take up to 10 hours per week.

Can you find that much time? If not, maybe you should start off by committing to three days per week. Or invest in a piece of home exercise equipment or decide to walk for an hour each day instead so that you can cut back on the travel time.

Stop Trying to Go It Alone

Making a public commitment to a change in behavior increases your likelihood of success. Join a diet support group, find an exercise partner, or even post your intentions on social media to help keep yourself accountable.

Track Your Progress

Keep a food diary, an exercise log, or simply a list of the steps you took that day toward your goal. “Such self-monitoring increases the probability of keeping your resolution,” Norcross says.

Give Yourself Time

A small study from University College London found that it takes an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become a habit. And your path to change likely won't be perfect. But a slip need not be a fail, Norcross says. In fact, according to his research, 71 percent of successful resolvers say their first slip actually strengthened their efforts, renewing their inspiration to achieve their goals.  

Recalibrate as Necessary

Examining a slip can help you find flaws in your plan that may signal a readjustment is in order. “There’s a lot of self-blame around ditching a New Year’s resolution,” Whelan says. “Give yourself permission to reprioritize and re-evaluate as needed.”