There’s something about a change in the calendar that seems to inspire (or pressure) many of us into making grand, life-altering goals. But is the uptick from 2019 to 2020 really enough motivation to achieve a healthy, happy lifestyle? 

According to Dr. Bettina Höchli, senior researcher of consumer behavior at the University of Bern in Switzerland, probably not. “The motivation to execute a behavior is often very high at the start of goal pursuit, but decreases strongly over time,” she says. “And of course we have not only observed this in others, we know this situation all too well from our own lives.” 

With a reported 64 percent of people dropping their resolutions by June, Dr. Höchli and her colleagues set out to discover how major goals could be sustained. 

Their study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology earlier this year, found that a combination of superordinate goals (big ideas like ‘I want to be healthy’) mixed with subordinate goals (smaller check-points like ‘I want to attend a yoga class Wednesday mornings’) was the key to making the resolution stick. The superordinate goal acts as a compass, guiding the decisions you make along the way. 

We asked Höchli to break down the best tips she learned for setting long-term goals:

FIND YOUR WHY
Having a good reason to change your behavior—that is important to you—is an essential starting point. “Without it,” says Höchli, “you will probably lose motivation pretty soon.”

HOW WILL YOU DO IT?
There’s usually more than one way to achieve your grand, superordinate goal. Start by making a list of steps (it doesn’t need to be in any particular order). These are the subordinate goals that you can begin to mark off and will deliver you closer to the superordinate goal.

WHAT IS EASIEST?
Build confidence by checking off the easier things on the list first and then working your way up to more challenging tasks. If you are able to have fun while completing your subordinate goals, that is a reward that will motivate you to keep going. 

ANTICIPATE WHAT COULD GO WRONG
Höchli recommends creating “If-Then” plans to help you stay on track and build a new habit. For example, if you’re craving candy then you can get up and make a cup of tea. Or if you are around people unsupportive of your goal, then you can plan to go for a walk or talk with a friend. 

KEEP TRYING
Some people steer clear from resolutions all together because they believe that they are unattainable. But maybe that’s the best part about setting a goal. “Sometimes achieving a goal is not in a person’s best interest,” says Höchli. Achieving a goal signals to your brain that you’ve done what is necessary and can now relax. This is when you’re most likely to slip back into a bad habit. 

“It is perfectly normal to relapse from time to time. That does not mean that you failed your resolution,” she says. “Get up and try again.”