Most of us start the year with high hopes for the health of our bodies, minds, careers, and — of course—bank accounts. But you probably don’t need a statistician to tell you that when it comes to keeping your New Year’s resolutions, the odds are stacked against you.
A popular study published in the University of Scranton’s Journal of Clinical Psychology found that while nearly half of Americans usually make resolutions, just 8% are successful in keeping them, and about one-quarter report that they fail to meet their goals year after year.
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Why do these plans fall apart so easily? We talked to two certified financial planners to find out what held people back from sticking to their self-improvement plans in years past — and what can be done to overcome these obstacles in 2017.
No. 1: Your resolutions are unrealistic or unclear.
Vague, lofty goals like “lose weight” or “save money” can do more harm than good; undefined targets can leave you overwhelmed and discouraged when you don’t immediately succeed. That’s why resolutions should start small, according to Kristen Euretig, certified financial planner and founder of Brooklyn Plans in Brooklyn, N.Y., a company specializing in helping today's women with their finances. “Take into account a realistic but ambitious goal that can be achieved in a year and would be forward momentum toward an even larger goal,” says Euretig. “Buying a house may be too much to tackle in a year, but saving the first 10% of a down payment could be a realistic starting point that would also be quite an accomplishment.”
Another trick to keep you from getting overwhelmed? Be as specific as possible. Euretig recommends breaking up big resolutions into defined subgoals with set deadlines. Rather than resolving to pay off student debt, says Euretig, start by figuring out if your payment plan is working to your advantage. That way, you’ll better understand the time and effort required to reach your goal and appreciate any incremental progress along the way.
No. 2: Your resolutions don’t align with your needs or lifestyle.
Ever find yourself rationalizing your way out of a behavioral change? Maybe you can’t go to the gym today because you have important errands to run, or you neglect that book on your nightstand because there is a movie on Netflix you’ve been meaning to watch. Your reasons may be legitimate, but using them as a means of abandoning your self-improvement plan is detrimental to you in the long term.
Melissa Ellis, certified financial planner at Sapphire Wealth Planning in Overland Park, Kan., knows that a thorough understanding of your current behaviors and lifestyle can help you anticipate the setbacks you will face throughout the year and think up solutions that will keep you on track when challenges arise. If your goal is to max out your Roth IRA, Ellis notes, you need to make sure you have the discretionary income to make it happen; if you know at the start of the year that you’ll have to cut back somewhere else in your budget (like your take-out habit) to find the extra money, you’re more likely to stick to the plan.
No. 3: You sacrifice your future well-being for your present happiness.
Most of us treat our future self as a different person. Unfortunately, it’s often a person we don’t seem to care much about. This phenomenon — our willingness to sacrifice our future well-being for immediate gratification — is called myopia temporal discounting. It's one reason why many people continually put off diets, start saving for retirement later than they should, or rack up credit card debt for items or experiences they can’t afford. In fact, credit cards are the ultimate trap for people who like to live in the present vs. think about the future.
“It’s easier to put off the intangible, because it’s not an immediate need,” says Ellis. Try connecting with your future self by visualizing what you would like your life to look like at age 40, 60, or 75, and think about what steps, however small, you can take today to make that vision a reality.
You should know your financial personality — that is, how you perceive time and how that perception impacts your financial habits — before you make any financial resolutions. The better you understand your strengths and weaknesses, the more likely you will be to succeed.
No. 4: You don’t hold yourself accountable.
Can you remember what your resolutions for last year were? It typically only takes about three weeks for most of us to get back into our old routines and forget all our intentions for the new year, especially if you don’t have a time frame for achieving the goal or a way to measure your progress.
“The best way to stick to resolutions is to make them real and to hold yourself accountable,” says Euretig. “Write goals down. Make a vision board. Put a picture of the vision board as the wallpaper of your phone. Share your resolutions with an accountability partner who you can check in with along the way or with your social media community.” Setting aside time each week or each month to check in with yourself about your success will help you remember the resolutions throughout the year. If you need an extra boost, tap a friend or family member who can help remind you to stay on track or, even better, join you on the journey.
No. 5: You forget to reward yourself.
It’s easy to lose motivation as the year goes on and you settle into old routines. Any sense of urgency goes away, and you can end up putting off behavioral changes indefinitely until it’s January again.
That’s why Ellis recommends rewarding yourself throughout the year if you are successfully sticking to your resolution. If you meet your goals of, say, paying off a department store credit card, maybe buy yourself a pair of shoes — but be sure to do it in cash, so you’re not buying something you can’t afford and racking up more debt. “It’s something concrete you can look at to remind you that you have made a change,” Ellis says.
Whether your goals are about money, your career, relationships, or fitness, it’s important to remember that good things typically don’t come easily. Taking time to set the right goals, define an execution plan, and regularly track your progress will make sticking to your resolutions a little less painful — and a lot more likely to happen.
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