Making New Year’s Resolutions? Ask Yourself 6 Questions.

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Every Wednesday is Tip Day—or List Day, or Quiz Day.
This Wednesday: Six questions to help you make effective New Year’s resolutions.

Forty-four percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, and I know I always do. I’m more inclined to make resolutions than ever, in fact, because if my happiness project has convinced me of anything, it has convinced me that resolutions—made right—can make a huge difference in boosting happiness.

So how do you resolve well? This is trickier than it sounds. Here are some tips for making your resolutions as effective as possible.

1. Ask: “What would make me happier?” It might having more of something good —more fun with friends, more time for a hobby. It might be less of something bad —less yelling at your kids, less nagging of your spouse. It might be fixing something that doesn’t feel right—more time spent volunteering, more time doing something to make someone else happier. Or maybe you need to get an atmosphere of growth in your life by learning something new, helping someone, or fixing something that isn’t working properly. (These questions relate to the First Splendid Truth.)

2. Ask: “What is a concrete action that would bring change?” One common problem is that people make abstract resolutions, which are hard to keep. “Be more optimistic,” “Find more joy in life,” “Enjoy now,” are resolutions that are hard to measure and therefore difficult to keep. Instead, look for a specific, measurable action. “Distract myself with fun music when I’m feeling gloomy,” “Watch at least one movie each week,” “Buy a plant for my desk” are resolutions that will carry you toward those abstract goals.

3. Ask: “Am I a ‘yes’ resolver or a ‘no’ resolver?” Some people resent negative resolutions. They dislike hearing “don’t” or “stop” (even from themselves) or adding to their list of chores. If this describes you, try to find positive resolutions: “Take that dance class,” “Have lunch with a friend once a week.” Or maybe you respond well to “no.” I actually do better with “no” resolutions; this may be related to the abstainer/moderator split. A lot of my resolutions are aimed at getting me to stop doing something, or to do something I don’t really want to do—such as Don’t expect gold stars. There’s no right way to make a resolution, but it’s important to know what works for you. As always, the secret is to know your own nature. (That’s the Fifth Splendid Truth.)

4. Ask: “Am I starting small enough?” Many people make super-ambitious resolutions and then drop them, feeling defeated, before January is over. Start small! We tend to over-estimate what we can do over a short time and under-estimate what we can do over a long time, if we make consistent, small steps. If you’re going to resolve to start exercising (one of the most popular resolutions), don’t resolve to go to the gym for an hour every day before work. Start by going for a ten-minute walk at lunch or marching in place once a day during the commercial breaks in your favorite TV show. Little accomplishments provide energy for bigger challenges. The humble resolution you actually follow is more helpful than the ambitious resolution you abandon. Lower the bar!

5. Ask: “How am I going to hold myself accountable?” Accountability is the secret to sticking to resolutions. That’s why groups like AA and Weight Watchers are effective. There are many ways to hold yourself accountable; for example, I keep my Resolutions Chart (if you’d like to see my chart, for inspiration, email me at gretchenrubin1@gretchenrubin.com). Or you might want to join or launch a Happiness Project group. Accountability is why #2 is so important. If your resolution is too vague, it’s hard to measure whether you’ve been keeping it. A resolution to “Eat healthier” is harder to track than “Eat salad for lunch three times a week.”

6. Ask: “Are there any small, nagging issues weighing down my happiness?” (really a subset of #1) I call these the Pigeons of Discontent. They aren’t major happiness challenges, but rather, the ordinary problems that bedevil us. The 2012 Happiness Challenge is going to be aimed at finding ways to get rid of these.

If you want to make 2012 a happier year, please consider joining the 2012 Happiness Challenge! The sign-up link isn’t ready yet, but it’s coming soon. By officially signing up, studies show, you help yourself better stick to your resolutions. More info to come.

Have you found any strategies that have helped you successfully keep resolutions in the past?

* Speaking of resolutions, several of my resolutions are aimed at making sure I exercise regularly. I’ve been exercising (regularly but mildly) for a long time now, but my couch-potato inclinations always lurk. Reading the New York Times blog Phys Ed strengthens my resolve by reminding me how much healthier and happier I am, when I manage to get some exercise.

* Again, if you’d like to see my Resolutions Chart, to get ideas for yourself, email me at gretchenrubin1@gretchenrubin.com. Or email me if you’d want the starter kit for joining or launching a Happiness Project group.